Belgian minister puts Palestine on the EU agenda, not all agree

Belgian minister puts Palestine on the EU agenda, not all agree
Family photo of the informal ministerial meeting in Cádiz, 5 September 2023.,© Pool PEUE/Villar López

The development ministers of all the EU member states met this week for an informal council meeting in Cadiz, Spain, chaired by High Representative Josep Borrell, to define their joint policy.

"The key objective of this meeting was to relaunch the work in view of the events to take place at the United Nations at the end of the month: the next SDG Summit, a major meeting to drive the Sustainable Development Goals," he stressed. The High Representative is in charge of EU’s foreign affairs and security policy.

At the meeting, the Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation and Major Cities Policy, Caroline Gennez, raised the issue of "the escalating violence and the shrinking space for peaceful coexistence, democracy and civil society in the occupied Palestinian territories".

She called on her European colleagues to take action together: "2023 is already the most violent and deadly year in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than 10 years,” she said, referring to a recent official report by the UN Human Rights Council on the dire situation in the occupied territories and the difficulties for civil society and human rights organisations to work there.

Last week, when she entered this minefield of conflicting narratives, she almost caused a diplomatic row between Belgium and Israel.  Her allegation that “entire villages are being wiped out by the Israelis” resulted in Israeli protests and was described as “libellous and defamatory.”

In fact, she was referring to the Israeli finance minister who had said he wanted to wipe out a West Bank village off the map after a terrorist attack. She might also have referred to the systematic demolition of Palestinian buildings and infrastructure that the Israeli authorities consider illegal. Some of them have been financed by EU or its Member States.

"In Israel, extremes are gaining influence,” she said. “Freedom of expression is under pressure. In short, the growing influence of extremes makes a peaceful, lasting solution to the conflict increasingly difficult." She explained to The Brussels Times that she sees an increasing influence of extremists on both sides, both in Palestine and in Israel.

Gennez explained that the continuing postponement of elections – also due to the internal political issues among the Palestinians - is very disappointing. “However, we call on Israel to facilitate such an election in all areas, including East Jerusalem. Belgium and the EU have from the beginning expressed its support for credible, inclusive and transparent elections for all Palestinians.”

According to the Belgian minister, her invention garnered support from several countries, including Spain, the current chair of the EU Presidency, Italy, Luxembourg, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus, as well as the High Representative Josep Borrell."

The European External Action Service did not respond to a request for comment. Gennez claims that Borrell explicitly expressed his support for Belgium’s commitment to put Palestine on the agenda of other council meetings in the future and promote the two-state solution.

“We are glad that several Member States have given their support for our proposal for a more coordinated EU approach to protect and strengthen civic space in the occupied Palestinian territories and to increase the monitoring of European development projects.” She also suggested a Team Europe approach to monitor and evaluate the situation on the ground.

Belgium itself will lead by example. "Our international solidarity will focus on strengthening civil society in Palestine through our Civic Space Fund. This is a fund we recently set up a to support human rights organisations and activists in the partner countries of our development cooperation.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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