Thursday, January 08, 2009

Gaza, Europe and empty gestures

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

'We're fed up with empty gestures', the Israeli prime minister told a high level delegation from the EU. Several foreign ministers and EU officials had come to the Middle East to try to help end the war raging in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, which has killed over 700 Palestinians and 10 Israelis in the twelve days since it started. The EU has been calling for a ceasefire and the reopening of Gaza’s borders.

Ehud Olmert’s chastising comments, reported by the Jerusalem Post on January 6th, summarised neatly the difficulties the EU faces in trying to help Israel ensure its security while alleviating the plight of Palestinians. Many Israeli leaders believe the EU does not have much to offer to improve their security and therefore pay little attention to the EU in times of crisis. But the EU should not be seen as irrelevant.

It will never have the leverage of the US (nor should it aspire to), but it does have stakes in the region. Among other things, the EU is Israel’s main trading partner and the largest provider of financial assistance to the Palestinians. In order to have more leverage in peace talks and mediation, the EU should play a stronger role in providing security for both sides.

So far, European countries have shied away from offering any serious commitments to improve the security between Israel and its neighbours. In recent years Europe has sent various missions to the region as part of monitoring or peacekeeping operations. The EU has a monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing (EUBAM, which has been dormant since Hamas has been in sole control of Gaza) and Europe has contributed the bulk of the troops to UNIFIL, the UN’s mission which supervises peace in South Lebanon. But both deployments have limited mandates. They focus on monitoring but avoid engagement with hostile forces.

As a result, Israel underlines the limitations of UNIFIL by pointing to Hezbollah’s rearming, which has been taking place unhindered since the end of the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006. And Israel has always been dissatisfied with EUBAM: it would like to see EU monitors intercept weapon smugglers, if necessary with the use of force. But the EU has been reluctant to take on such a role. Unsurprisingly, Israel hasn’t considered the offer to reinstate EUBAM as a deal clincher in the EU’s current efforts to promote a ceasefire in Gaza. In the midst of heavy fighting, it doesn’t seem particularly useful to offer this small scale monitoring mission (which, in addition, in order to function needs non-Hamas Palestinian officials, who all fled Gaza in June 2007).

European countries are understandably reluctant to send their troops to troublespots in this politically sensitive region. But the EU should be less risk averse and offer troops when monitoring missions are a necessary component of peace-building measures supported by local parties. The EU might not only help bring stability and give Palestinian civilians the impression that there is progress; it would also be taken more seriously by Israel, and subsequently acquire stronger leverage in the peace process.

At the time of writing, ideas were being discussed at the UN to end the conflict in Gaza. Amongst other initiatives, a French-Egyptian proposal would open the borders of Gaza and strengthen measures to combat the smuggling of weapons into the territory, including through the presence of an international force. Unknowns in the proposals still need to be addressed, not least how to secure the necessary consent of Hamas. But the EU should offer to take part in any international monitoring force, and support a strong mandate for that force. Israel will agree to end its military offensive and it will consider opening the borders to Gaza only if an international force is capable of genuinely limiting weapons smuggling. If Israel feels the force is underperforming it will only be a matter of time until Tel Aviv undertakes another military operation in Gaza.

An end to the violence and to Gaza’s economic isolation will be only two of the many difficult steps needed to reverse the deterioration of the last two years. In the long term Palestinian rockets and weapons smuggling can only be stopped if Hamas and other Palestinian factions lose the desire to fight. In order to achieve this Hamas will need to be engaged by Israel and the wider international community. But in the short term, by offering serious monitors, at least the EU can make a contribution to stabilising the conflict in Gaza, and can hope to reverse the perception of its empty gestures.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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