EU declares Israel boycott protected as free speech
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EU declares Israel boycott protected as free speech

Palestinians hail Federica Mogherini's statement, but she stresses that the union 'rejects the BDS campaign's attempts to isolate Israel'

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmud Abbas (L) address the media after a meeting at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels on June 22, 2016.(AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER)
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmud Abbas (L) address the media after a meeting at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels on June 22, 2016.(AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER)

The European Union’s foreign policy chief recently affirmed the right of EU citizens to boycott Israel, citing freedom of expression and rebuffing claims by Jerusalem that such measures amount to banned anti-Semitic activity.

While upholding the right of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement to blacklist the Jewish state, Federica Mogherini also noted that the EU itself opposes efforts to boycott Israel.

“The EU stands firm in protecting freedom of expression and freedom of association in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which is applicable on EU Member States’ territory, including with regard to BDS actions carried out on this territory,” Mogherini said in a written reply to a query by an Irish member of the European Parliament last month.

“Freedom of expression, as underlined by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, is also applicable to information or ideas ‘that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population,’” Mogherini said.

She continued: “The EU rejects the BDS campaign’s attempts to isolate Israel and is opposed to any boycott of Israel.”

Despite the EU’s outspoken rejection of BDS, the Palestinians celebrated Mogherini’s statement.

“We welcome the EU’s belated defense of the right of European and other citizens to stand in solidarity with Palestinian rights, including through BDS tactics,” said Riya Hassan, a senior member of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which bills itself as the the “largest coalition in Palestinian civil society” promoting the anti-Israel boycott movement.

Hassan went on to state that the Palestinians expect the EU to take steps against Israel, including, “at the very least, imposing a military embargo on Israel, banning products of companies that do business in Israel’s illegal colonies.”

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on Mogherini’s statement, which came on September 15 but was only published recently.

The statement came in response to a parliamentary question posed on June 24 by Sinn Fein politician Martina Anderson.

Anderson, a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause and strident critic of Israel, had asked the European Commission whether it would “commit to defending BDS activists’ right to exercise their democratic freedom of expression.”

In her query, Anderson — who heads the European Parliament’s “Delegation for relations with Palestine” — also asked the EU Commission to comment on a speech made in March by Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, in which he called for “pinpoint civil eliminations” (Hebrew link) against the heads of the BDS movement. (The phrase he used, sikul ezrahi memukad, has also been translated as “targeted civic prevention effort,” though sikul usually means assassination.)

Mogherini replied by saying that the EU “firmly condemns threats and violence against human rights defenders under all circumstances.” The union regularly discusses with Jerusalem questions regarding the the “protection of human rights and human rights defenders,” she added. The EU “calls on both Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from provocation and to resolutely fight incitement and hate speech.”

European Union President Donald Tusk, right, welcomes Israeli President President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, June 21, 2016. (AFP/JOHN THYS)
European Union President Donald Tusk, right, welcomes President President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, June 21, 2016. (AFP/JOHN THYS)

Israel’s relationship with the EU has been fraught over the last few years, due to what Jerusalem perceives as a persistent pro-Palestinian bias in the union’s statements and policies.

Last week, for instance, Jerusalem was displeased over a group of senior EU diplomats visiting Palestinian villages in the West Bank that face demolition at the hands of Israeli authorities.

Posted by European Union and the Palestinians on Monday, 24 October 2016

The EU delegation to the Palestinian Authority said the trip’s objective was to learn about “the coercive environment these communities find themselves in, to be informed of recent developments, to demonstrate concern at the humanitarian impact of any demolitions and forced transfer of population, and to express the EU’s commitment to a sustainable future for the Palestinian communities in Area C.”

Area C is the part of the West Bank in which Israel exercises administrative and military control, and in which the Israeli settlements are located.

Israel, which argues that the structures slated for demolition were built illegally, reacted “with irritation to the initiative and the statement,” a senior official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel.

“We can only wish that the EU would show the same amount of empathy and interest toward the Israeli victims of Palestinian violence and incitement. The root cause of the conflict is the persistent refusal of the Palestinian leadership to recognize the legitimacy of our existence as the state of the Jewish people.”

Despite ongoing tension over Israel’s repeated destruction of illegal structures, many of which were funded by the union, a senior EU official dealing with the Middle East last week hailed overall stable bilateral ties.

“Yes, there is a difference of views on issues concerning the Palestinians but at the same time there is no other country in the region the EU has a stronger relationship with than Israel,” said Christian Berger, the outgoing director of the EU foreign ministry’s Middle East and Northern Africa department.

Berger, who over the years has been blamed by Israeli officials for many of the EU’s perceived pro-Palestinian policies, made the comment in a statement he provided to Israel’s diplomatic mission in Brussels on the occasion of his leaving the post.

“I wish the country well,” said Berger. “Israel will continue to prosper but I also hope she will find peace in a troubled region during troubled times. And, I hope Israel will remain a strong friend and partner of Europe.”

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