European Parliament President Martin Schulz criticized Israel Wednesday for its blockade of the Gaza Strip and for allegedly allowing Israelis to consume more water than Palestinians, causing a storm of protest from the far-right Jewish Home party, some of whose members walked out while he was addressing the Knesset plenum.
In a wide-ranging speech, Schulz, who spoke in his mother tongue of German, reassured Israel of the European Union’s friendship, asserting that it plans no boycott against Israel and is committed to the Jewish people’s right to live in peace and security. On the other hand, he vocally criticized certain Israeli settlement policies and called on Israel to consider easing its blockade of Gaza, suggesting that it increases Palestinian frustration and thus makes Israelis less secure.
“The blockade of the Gaza Strip is your reaction to attacks on the civilian population. But it also does not allow real development and drives people to despair, which in turn is used by extremists,” Schulz said. “Perhaps the blockade creates not more, but less, security.”
Schulz also recounted a meeting he held two days ago with young Palestinians, saying they dream of something that most people take for granted: “to live in their own country, without violence, without restrictions of movement.” Palestinians have the same rights as Israelis to self-determination and justice, Schulz said.
“One of the questions from these young men that moved me the most was: How can it be that Israelis are allowed to use 70 liters [of water] per day and Palestinians only 17?”
At this point, several right-wing MKs yelled out in protest, calling the figures Palestinian lies, with a number of Jewish Home party lawmakers, including Orit Struck and Moti Yogev, stalking out of the plenum. Minutes after Schulz finished speaking, Economy Minister and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett released a statement demanding an apology for “two lies that the Palestinians fed him.”
“The words that were heard in the Knesset are very grave,” Bennett stated. “Silence in the face of false propaganda legitimizes actions against Israelis. I will not accept false moralizing against the people of Israel, in Israel’s Knesset. Certainly not in German.”
Yogev said that today Palestinians received the same amount of water as Israel and that Israel is actually “taking care” of Gazans, providing them with food and cement “that is being used against” Israel.
“His support for Palestinians who incite for the destruction of Israel, from the Knesset podium, 70 years after the Holocaust, is a chutzpah without parallel,” Yogev said.
The figures cited by Schulz in the name of Palestinians may reflect assessments by some organizations, including the World Bank, about the gap between water infrastructures in the West Bank and the far more developed infrastructure across the Green Line.
Labor MK Hilik Bar, who chairs the Knesset Caucus for Furthering Relations Between Israel and Europe, came to Schulz’s defense. “The behavior of Bennett and other members of Jewish Home in the plenum is egregious, dangerous and ugly, and certainly not helpful to Israel and to the stature [of the Knesset],” he said.
For his part, Schulz was unimpressed by the heckling, joking that compared to the European Parliament this was harmless. When the yelling — “Palestinians are liars” and similar slogans — continued, preventing Schulz from proceeding with his address, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said that the correct information about the alleged discrepancy in access to water would be submitted to the guest, but that it shouldn’t be done by shouting in the plenum.
During his half-hour speech, which was greeted with standing ovations from center and left-wing MKs, Schulz also reiterated the EU’s “clear commitment to Israel’s right to exist, and to the right of the Jewish people to live in security and peace.
“The European Union will always stand at Israel’s side,” he vowed.
Schulz expressed support for the current US-brokered peace negotiations, and said he truly believes a final-status deal was in reach. In that case, the EU is willing to offer Israel the status of a “privileged partnership,” which includes “unprecedented financial and personal support.”
“We Europeans support you on the rocky path to peace, which will demand tough concessions from both sides. We know that the Israeli people wants peace,” he said.
Schulz also mentioned Israeli victims of Palestinian rocket attacks, saying that Europeans can hardly imagine the emotional hardships parents in Sderot and Ashkelon undergo when they fear for their children. “Therefore Israel has a right to protect its citizens,” he said.
The senior European official, who is rumored to be considering a run for the presidency of the EU Commission, its most powerful executive organ, also mentioned the Iranian nuclear program, saying he can well understand why Israel feels threatened. “Iran must never acquire nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that this is not merely an Israeli worry but one of the entire world.