Can Gaza be called 'unoccupied'?

EU envoy Cibrian-Uzal sees few gaps between Europe and Israel on Hamas.

palestinian woman 298 (photo credit: AP)
palestinian woman 298
(photo credit: AP)
European Commission Ambassador Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal conducted a nearly two hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post at our offices on Monday, in which he explained why Europe's position on the Middle East hasn't changed much, in spite of Hamas's having taken control of the Palestinian Authority. Though categorical in his displeasure with the politics and actions of PA government, the ambassador insisted Israel talk peace with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The Spanish national who assumed his duties in January also said the mechanism Europe is developing to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians while bypassing Hamas would likely pay the salaries of PA health workers and teachers, albeit without passing through the relevant PA ministries. We're facing a real dilemma right now. On the one hand, we don't want a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian Authority. On the other, we don't want to make it easy for Hamas to govern. Where does the European Union stand on this? The EU is very disappointed in the Hamas government for not agreeing to the three conditions [of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting international agreements]. These are a minimum of what we are asking of Hamas… preconditions for maintaining normal relations and entering into a dialogue. I don't see divergence of policies with Israel [regarding Hamas]. I think both the EU and Israel are trying to promote change in the PA. This is our objective, and we realize that it may take time. It is not going to be easy in the short term, and in the meantime we are trying to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the PA which I don't think is in anyone's interest. Why should the Palestinian public be bailed out? They voted freely for a terrorist organization. Why shouldn't they be made to pay a price for that? The Palestinian people are in a very difficult situation. We all know that they do not yet have a full-fledged state. That is the core of the problem. An occupation of their territories is still going on - territories which, according to many people, will make up a future Palestinian state. This, of course, limits many things. It limits the degree of economic development and the degree of autonomy in the territory. Both Israel and the international community have a responsibility for what is going on there. The reality is that the international community, the United States, the European Union and Israel accepted the participation of Hamas in the elections…The fact that Hamas is now in the government does not excuse the responsibilities that Israel has as an occupying power and that the international community feels it has with respect to what is going on in the territories. My understanding is that Israeli control in the territories, even in Gaza, is extremely important. Supplies of water and electricity, delivery of fuel and even telecommunications and financial services are still controlled by Israel. So the first [country to bail out] the Palestinian people is Israel. Then the EU, then the US… What has changed is that the three of them are refusing to transfer funds and supplies through the PA. You said Hamas has failed to live up to expectations. Did the EU really think it would act differently than it has? Hamas has not met the conditions of the Quartet, and that is a cause of concern and disappointment in the EU. We now have to combine a policy of not providing any kind of financial flow to an organization that continues to be a designated terrorist organization with the responsibility we feel toward the Palestinian people. Will the mechanism the EC is developing to fund humanitarian projects for the Palestinians include paying salaries to some PA civil servants? It is very clear that the two most immediate challenges in the territories are health and education… The point is how to guarantee the continued operation of these sectors, and how to ensure that hospital and school employees receive the salaries they have not been paid for the last two months and in the future [without funding Hamas]. What about the curriculum in PA schools that teaches hatred of Jews and incitement against Israel? The curriculum, too, is cause for concern - something that's not going to be endorsed or accepted by the EU. Is changing that curriculum an issue the Europeans would use as a condition for funding? Certainly. Aside from the three basic conditions, others may be added for the temporary international mechanism. Is the mechanism something that will have to be agreed upon unanimously by the whole Quartet, or could members go their own way on it? The modus operandi was that no member of the Quartet explicitly veto it. [A main objective] of the temporary international mechanism is to identify a channel through which Israel could restore the transfer of the withheld funds. The aid of the EU for the year 2006 has already been largely committed… Our annual payment has never represented more than 10 percent of the PA salaries. My impression is that at least a third of the PA revenues are from financial transfers from Israel - those Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians. What is the official EU position on the peace process? Do you advocate Israel talking to PA President Mahmoud Abbas? Absolutely. This is a difference between the EU and Israel. The EU considers the president of the PA to be a legitimate partner for conducting peace negotiations… For the EU he continues to be completely valued as a partner; he continues to be received in European capitals; he continues to have political dialogue… We expect and recommend that the new Israeli government make an effort to return to negotiations with him. But Abbas was elected a year and a half ago. Much more recently a PA government was elected that not only rejects negotiations with Israel, but rejects its right to exist. Is it reasonable to go over the head of the choice of the people? Things are not so categorical [with Hamas]. I think there is some discussion going on in Hamas and the PA government to accept the results of a referendum on the negotiations [conducted by Abbas]. So it is not so black and white. Can you envision a situation in which Europe would support Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "convergence" plan - a unilateral delineation of Israel's borders? Our official position today continues to be in favor of a negotiated settlement. We believe that a stable agreement and lasting peace can only be the result of negotiations between the parties. Having said that, on the basis of the experience of disengagement, my impression is that the EU could support what I call "non-regret measures"… In other words, measures that will not make final negotiations and a final agreement more difficult. But is there a possibility that Europe would recognize unilaterally set borders that differ from 1967? The EU would only recognize something other than the '67 borders as a result of agreements between the parties. I don't think there has been a change in that position. Europe will encourage Ehud Olmert to try to negotiate - which by the way, is what he promised to do in his campaign. He promised his Israeli constituency that he would make an honest attempt at negotiations, and only if in the end negotiations are not workable, that he would consider other policy alternatives… We expect he will be faithful to his electoral commitments. I have the greatest respect for Olmert. From the EU's point of view, he has always been extremely open and friendly. He has come with the message that he values Europe as a partner. Therefore he has a very great level of respect in the EU and, frankly speaking, we expect him to be consistent with his commitment… I don't think I can elaborate on what position Europe will be taking on [convergence] - based on what has not yet been offered and what has not yet been verified as fact. Given Abbas's history of not fighting terror and his role in the failed Camp David summit, why does Europe think there's any chance of negotiations bearing fruit? First of all, since World War II, the basic European philosophy has been to place more value and faith in conflict resolution through negotiations [than in its alternative]. This attitude has worked in plenty of conflicts. Second, the evaluation of what has been going on in the last 15-16 months is not that bad. My impression is that both Abbas and Ariel Sharon were able to deliver a more livable situation… The level of terrorism was brought down significantly not only as a result [of the ceasefire], of course, but also through the actions of the IDF. But it is true that Abbas has tried through persuasion to decrease the levels of violence and to bring the conflict toward more peaceful times. If Hamas is not directly carrying out terror attacks, but Islamic Jihad and other groups in the PA are, should it be held responsible? There is no question that the PA is responsible for providing law and order in its territories. This is nothing new. As we said when Fatah was in charge, we expect the PA to impose the rule of law and do its best to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel. Some people are saying that the recent decision by the Quartet already represents a weakening of Europe's position vis-a-vis Hamas. Does Europe have the patience to hold Hamas to the three conditions set out by the Quartet? The EU's policy of refusing any kind of political contact with Hamas and the PA government still stands. What we are doing in Brussels right now is trying to identify a temporary international mechanism to transfer funds directly to the Palestinian people, without the need to have any kind of political contact with the Hamas leadership. Isn't this a slippery slope, however? If you fund the programs and activities the government is supposed to be funding, aren't you basically giving it a free pass to continue its anti-Israel stance, with no incentive to change politically? Does Europe have the stomach to hold firm against Hamas, even as conditions deteriorate in the territories, especially Gaza? My impression is that Hamas is under significant pressure and doesn't like it. The EU is not going to change its policy regarding the three basic conditions. We and other members of the international community are trying to avert a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. This is a challenge that will require a great deal of sensibility, diplomacy and determination. So far, we have been pretty successful. There is no question that Hamas is feeling the heat from many sides to change, and sees very clearly both the cost of not changing and the benefit of changing. Couldn't it be argued that this is a complete capitulation to Hamas - which obviously isn't feeling the pressure enough to take decent, humane positions? It's not caring about its people, and could probably argue, "Great, the Europeans are going to bail us out." Politics is the art of reconciling two contradictory positions. We are trying to do our best not to legitimize Hamas - not to recognize it politically until it recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts the agreements. At the same time, we feel obliged to continue to support the Palestinian people where their basic human needs are concerned. Why do you feel this obligation? There are people in dire straits all over the world, many of whom are even worse off than the Palestinians. Because the Palestinians' plight is the result of a political and military conflict. So we consider it more of a concern… We also have to say, within the concept of international law - and I know there are different legal perspectives of many people, including within Israel - that Israel is an occupying power, and as such has a responsibility to the occupied population. For a number of historical reasons, Europe and the US have always felt a special responsibility for what is going on in this part of the world. We felt it with the Balfour Declaration. We felt it in 1947 when the UN voted for the partition. And we have felt it during all interaction with the Israeli and Palestinian people throughout the 58 years of Israel's statehood. But, if you are talking about humanitarian issues, there are worse ones in the world, for example in Darfur. And if you are talking about occupation, one could argue that what China is doing to Tibet is worse. So what is it that makes the Palestinian plight more important to Europe? The EU elaborated this at the end of 2003, when its 25 member states approved the equivalent of a national strategic policy defining their strategic priorities. There it is clearly highlighted that a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict is one of the the EU's strategic priorities, for historical, geographical, and cultural reasons. So it is clear that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not on the same level as Darfur, which we care about, but which is not one of our strategic priorities. What is Europe's impression of the Beirut Initiative put forth by Saudi Arabia, calling for Israel to withdraw from all the land it took control of in 1967, and a just, agreed resolution of the refugee issue, in return for total peace and normalization with the Arab world? If Hamas were to endorse and accept the Beirut Initiative, this would be a step in the right direction, but not sufficient to restore business-as-usual operations with the EU. Why should we help to keep the Hamas regime alive? Why not let the it fail? It is not US or EU policy to topple every government that does not meet our expectations in terms of quality of democracy. What we do is to have relations with governments that are prepared to work in the right direction. As I said, [our policy toward] Hamas is to provoke and stimulate change - a policy that has been applied to many countries around the world. But the European benevolent view, that if you expose people to humane policies you will get change, leaves out the extremist religious imperative at the heart of Hamas thinking. That's why the European attitude seems so unpromising to many people. The Palestinian people are a special case because they are occupied. But why are they occupied, from an Israeli perspective? Because their last government rejected the last offer of statehood. Many in Israel argue: How many times must we save them from themselves, because we are not prepared to let them suffer and therefore wise up? I don't want to enter into a historical debate about the negotiations at Camp David… My only comment today is that we are not in any political contact with Hamas. That's what we are like with the [leader of Belarus, the only remaining authoritarian regime in Europe]… Do we have any business with [Hamas] today? No. In either a peace settlement or a unilateral move, Israel will likely have to conduct massive evacuations from the West Bank. Is it physically possible to move 80,000 people? Yes. Of that I can be categorical. Sharon's legacy is his demonstration that these kind of measures are possible… If there is the kind of policy and determination and resources [that were used in Gaza], I am sure the same thing can happen [in the West Bank] - perhaps in a longer time frame. The Gaza disengagement demonstrated that such things are possible when there is political will and democratic legitimacy. Will Europe contribute money toward pulling people out of the West Bank if doing so were part of a negotiated settlement? Estimates say it will cost at least $25 billion. You can be sure of one thing: The EU will be at Israel's and the Palestinians' side when they decide to move in the right direction. We already are. And our commitment, I'm sure, will be proportional to the length of the trip the Israelis and the Palestinians are prepared to go to [themselves]. Would Europe be prepared to contribute money to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank? If "convergence" follows the Gaza pattern, one can reasonably assume the EU will support it. But Europe did not help fund the Gaza disengagement. My impression is that, right now, there is a distribution of tax and labor in the Middle East. My understanding is that the US is supporting Israel at the level of $2.5 billion a year [most of which is spent on defense]. Under these conditions, everybody has been happy with the EU's taking the largest share of support for the other side. And that is the picture under which the Gaza disengagement took place. From Europe's perspective, is the Gaza Strip "occupied territory" today? From the strict point of international law, it is not an "unoccupied" territory. For a territory to be defined as free of occupation, it is not only the question of military presence on the ground. It is also control of airspace and maritime space and we are not yet there… But it is clear that the military presence on the ground - and the presence of settlers - was ended last summer. And that was welcomed by the EU as a step in the right direction. So if Israel allowed Gaza an airport and a seaport, it would be "unoccupied?" We are far from there. As long as Kassam rockets continue to be fired at Israel, and Israeli artillery continues to respond massively, to speak about whether Gaza is unoccupied is premature. The conflict, unfortunately, is still there. Turning to Iran, do you think that because you are living in Israel, you have a greater appreciation for the threats coming from President Ahmedinajad than perhaps your colleagues in Brussels do? I think everybody is aware of the risks that the development of nuclear weapons represents. The EU has always been supportive of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran has signed the treaty as a non-nuclear state. It must respect its commitments under the treaty. Of course, nuclear proliferation is a very bad thing. But when it is accompanied by the kind of anti-Semitic statements that the president of Iran has issued, it makes things even worse and more worrisome… In that respect there is only one European policy, both in Tel Aviv and in Brussels… The nuclear proliferation of Iran is still far from the point of being realized, but that is not the point. The point is that a nuclear Iran with long-range missiles will be a threat for both Israel and Europe… Of course, I do realize that the Israeli people feel immediately and directly threatened because of the anti-Semitic speeches directed at them. And I can understand that the degree of concern is particularly high in Israel because the threats have been more specifically directed at Israel. But from a strategic point of view, an Iran with nuclear weapons is a strategic threat for both Israel and Europe. Some of your aid programs to the Palestinians have recently been attacked because the organizations were accused of political activity against Israel. What is your response to that? We have two basic programs. One is to support NGOs that work in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories to promote peace. The other is the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, which focuses on supporting the rights of minorities. Here in Israel, that means the Arab minority. We have implemented these programs for a number of years now. We are very proud of them. And I'm pleased to report that we have never had the slightest criticism from the Israeli government. •