Painting of a Jewish man from the Ottoman Empire, 1779. (photo credit:Wikimedia Commons)
Next year will mark the centennial of European involvement in Israeli-Palestinian affairs.
This intervention, which predates the conflict, has taken the form of political policies and financial disbursements, funneled to a large extent through non-governmental organizations.
Through these vehicles, Europe has significantly influenced the conflict’s narrative.
The reasoning behind the disproportionate attention to this conflict has long been a subject of speculation.
No doubt, the plight of the Palestinians is of much concern. With 25 percent unemployment and a per-capita GDP of only $1,900, and having come under the governing powers of four nations in less than 100 years (Turkey, Britain, Jordan and Israel), Palestinians can benefit from the world’s help. But the same can be said about other areas in the Middle East where conditions are significantly worse.
Putting aside the reason for Europe’s obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is time for Europeans to ask two basic questions: Is such intervention helpful to Palestinians and Israelis? Does it serve European interests? An examination of historic and current conditions would show that while good-intentioned, European intervention has been perpetuating the conflict and continuously blocking the prospects for peace.
The seeds of European involvement were planted in the latter part of the 19th century, as the Ottoman Empire – which ruled the region for 400 years – was fading. Viewed then as the “sick man of Europe,” that empire lost control of the Middle East in World War I.
THIS INCLUDES Palestine – the Roman name given to the area composed of Israel (including the West Bank) and parts of Jordan. The term Palestine was broadly used by Jews and Arabs until the establishment of the State of Israel, and later adopted by Arabs living in Palestine as the name of their national movement.
Long before the emergence of a Palestinian national identity, the British were given a mandate by the League of Nations. Central to that mandate was the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
But when it took control in 1918, Britain chose not to fulfill this aspect of the mandate. Instead, its military, which ruled Palestine for the first two years of the mandatory period, reverted to the good old strategy of divide and rule.
The British military, by most historic accounts, tolerated and maybe even encouraged the anti-Jewish violence of 1920, which served as a precursor to the next century of violence. When pro-British Jews such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky tried to acquire weapons in order to defend themselves, they were arrested by the British.
The following 28 years of British civilian rule were characterized by various policy reversals reflecting changing British interests such as the need for Arab alliances in the lead-up to World War II and the rising importance of oil.
Eventually, the British limited and then stopped Jewish immigration into Palestine.
Denying entry to Jewish refugees seeking to escape persecution doomed the Jews of Europe to their deaths.
That was the past.
Today, Israel and Europe enjoy a strong alliance, which includes a military, economic and security partnership.
The Israel-UK relationship in particular is unshakable and rooted in strong shared values. Notwithstanding occasional policy differences, so is Israel’s bilateral relationship with most European nations.
ARE THE malignant European policies of divide-and-rule also a relic of the past? Unfortunately, while there may have been a shift in form and intention, the answer is no. As the centennial of European intervention approaches, two examples of European behavior underscore the policy stagnation that is continuing to fuel the divide.
One is the strong objection that the EU and individual European nations have been raising over the past months regarding pending Israeli legislation that would require more transparency for the funding of Israeli NGOs (a standard practice in the Western world).
Some of these NGOs, funded by European governments, are accused (rightly or wrongly) of fueling divisiveness. Denying European citizens greater ability to form their own judgment on whether such NGOs are helpful or harmful is, at minimum, suspicious.
For instance, Breaking the Silence, an NGO that is openly sponsored by European governments, encourages Israeli soldiers to report excessive force and other alleged abuses. After obtaining such information, the organization widely disseminates it to the Palestinians and the global media, inflaming disdain and hatred.
Dozens of other organizations sponsored by European governments actively accuse Israel of war crimes and spend millions of euros to incite Palestinian society against Israel.
While these NGOs are designed to help the Palestinians and even Israel (such as in identifying and prosecuting criminal behavior), the primary consequences, unintended as they might be, exacerbate the conflict and perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian divide. This would be akin to a foreign government pouring millions into organizations that encourage policemen in Belgium and France to describe the excessive force they use in arresting suspected Muslim terrorists (for example, the killing of an Arab man during a recent police raid in Brussels), and NGOs spending millions in foreign money to incite Europe’s Muslims against the authorities.
This would not be tolerated in Europe, yet it is Europe that is encouraging such tactics.
A SECOND contemporary example of European actions fueling the divide is the astonishing decision by the EU to single out Israel and require the labeling of products made by Jews in the West Bank. This does not apply to other disputed territories around the world or within Europe. The decree has led many Europeans to state that they are ashamed to be Europeans.
Broadly labeled by American and other world leaders as outright anti-Semitic, the EU decision is having a profound contribution on perpetuating the conflict.
Jewish-owned businesses in the West Bank employ thousands of Palestinians.
Considering the distress of the Palestinian economy and high unemployment, European intervention is cruelly taking away Palestinian jobs that are not replaceable.
This contributes to the hardship in the Palestinian territories and to more economic distress.
The EU labeling decision is a textbook application of divide and rule. It strips Palestinians of the ability to make their own decisions whether to participate in the settlement economy or not. These are decisions that should be made by Palestinians, not foreign entities thousands of kilometers away.
In attempting to shut down the Palestinians’ potential employers, Europe is effectively dictating a “Europe knows better” approach, a classic symptom of colonial mentality that wears, at the very least, a hint of Islamophobia.
Beyond exerting such colonial-era dictation to the Palestinians, the Europeans are creating irreversible realities on the ground that prevent progress.
Europe has been lowering the prospects for peace by raising Palestinian expectations to a point where a peace deal is not feasible. Economically, it is blocking the path to a more logical pro-Palestinian policy that would come through incentives to Israeli companies to set up shop in joint industrial zones in the West Bank. This way, young Palestinians could be mentored into becoming hi-tech entrepreneurs, scientists and innovators.
For the most part, what these two examples demonstrate is that Europe is still forcing on the Palestinians a narrative of victimhood and distress. This systematically suppresses the creative and entrepreneurial energies embedded in Palestinian society. Effectively, Europe is engaging in a cultural occupation of Palestine.
The primary consequence of such behavior is inadvertent fulfillment of the mission that was set 100 years ago: Divide and rule. It is time for this to end.
EUROPE’S DISENGAGEMENT is not only the right and the moral thing to do. There is an urgent need elsewhere for those millions of euros – in Europe.
Just as when the continent began its involvement in the region, there was a “sick man of Europe,” there is one today as well – Europe itself.
With a growing Muslim population, rising Islamophobia, the infiltration of Islamic State into the hearts of European cities and the emergence of a debate about the future of Europe’s identity, Europe is struggling. Investing in its own problems rather than projecting and causing damage to another region is the next phase in Europe’s decolonization.
Israel and the West must stand shoulder to shoulder with Europe and fully support it as it goes through its troubled times. But it must also be honest with its friend and ally, and demand that it engage in a brave reassessment of its disruptive involvement.
With the elimination of divisive European funding and its debilitating intervention in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, conditions could be ripe for two people who share a land, but also much more, to finally sit together and bring peace to an oasis of ingenuity in the Middle East.