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Right-wing activists chase EU envoy from site of planned East Jerusalem project

Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff leads delegation of 13 European diplomats to Givat Hamatos to slam ‘de facto annexation attempt,’ protesters denounce them as anti-Semites, chase them off

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

EU representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff surrounded by Israeli activists during a visit at the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, November 16, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
EU representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff surrounded by Israeli activists during a visit at the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, November 16, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Right-wing demonstrators chased the European Union’s top representative to the Palestinians away from the East Jerusalem site of a planned new housing project, calling him an anti-Semite and a supporter of terrorism.

Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff later said that while he did not feel threatened, he regretted that he had been unable to conduct a constructive dialogue with the protesters.

He had planned to lead a delegation of diplomats from 13 EU member states to protest Israel’s plan to expand Givat Hamatos, a neighborhood where Israeli authorities on Sunday opened bidding on the construction of new homes.

Many in the international community have condemned the plan, saying new building in the sensitive location would harm the prospects of a future contiguous Palestinian state.

EU representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff during a visit at the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, November 16, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Von Burgsdorff and the other European diplomats, including representatives from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and other countries, were greeted by about a dozen activists from the right-wing Im Tirzu movement as they arrived in the area.

They shouted slogans such as “EU, shame on you,” and “Go back to Europe,” and accused the European officials of supporting terrorism. Several activists repeatedly called the European diplomats “anti-Semites.”

The convoy quickly turned around and moved to a different site in the area, where von Burgsdorff planned to make remarks. But by the time the diplomats had exited their vehicles and gathered in one spot, the Israeli activists had reached the point as well, waving flags and shouting slogans, making it impossible for the EU diplomat to deliver his speech.

After a few minutes, the European diplomats walked back to their cars and drove off. As the convoy passed a crowd of activists and reporters and drove through the area’s narrow streets, one vehicle bumped into a parked car, causing minor damage.

EU representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff being driven from the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem after right-wing protesters prevented him from making remarks at the site, November 16, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

About half an hour later, the diplomats gathered at the East Talpiot Promenade, in a different part of the city, where von Burgsdorff briefly addressed a handful of reporters.

“We are here early on, 24 hours after the decision has been taken, to demonstrate our disagreement with this move, and to underline the importance of creating an atmosphere of trust between the parties,” he said.

On Sunday morning, the Israel Lands Authority and the Housing Ministry opened bidding for the construction of 1,257 units for a new neighborhood in Givat Hamatos. If built, it would be the first new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem in two decades.

“What we’re seeing right now here is a de facto annexation attempt. And that cannot go on,” von Burgsdorff said.

You’d be surprised to learn how pragmatic Palestinian negotiators can be

He called on Israel to reverse its plans for the neighborhood and instead “create momentum” for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “This is the only way forward. Without dialogue, you cannot go forward. In order to have a dialogue, you need to create trust. These steps are not a measure to create support for trust.”

The outgoing administration of US President Donald Trump has “severely compromised the possibility of reaching a two-state solution under international parameters,” von Burgsdorff said, adding that the EU hoped US President-elect Joe Biden would be able to revitalize this process.

“I personally didn’t feel threatened,” the senior diplomat told The Times of Israel about what had transpired earlier during the day. “It was unfortunate that we could not have a reasonable dialogue with these people, which is a pity, because I would have liked to engage with them.”

EU representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff surrounded by Israeli activists during a visit at the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, November 16, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Von Burgsdorff rejected the accusation that he was an anti-Semite, stressing that he was merely representing the EU’s longstanding positions on the Middle East.

“I am still a diplomat. I am a guest in this country,” he said, noting that he was accredited to the Palestinian Authority and not to Israel.

Speaking to a handful of journalists after the event, he said he followed with great interest inner-Jewish discussions about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with various commentators debating the merits of a one-state or a two-state solution.

“But let’s not speculate on that. Why don’t we give the parties the opportunity to come back to the table and discuss this? You’d be surprised to learn how pragmatic Palestinian negotiators can be,” he said.

“The Arab people on the Palestinian side are very realistic. On the other hand, they’re not showing all their cards. The importance is to create trust so that people come back to the negotiating table,” he added.

An Israeli demonstrator protests EU representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff’s visit to the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, November 16, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Exactly how Israelis and Palestinians will ultimately decide to live together was not for Brussels to decide, the German-born diplomat said.

“But we’re interested in peace and security. Israel is one of our closest allies, maybe even the closest, in the Middle East,” he said. “But we want to make sure that this seemingly intractable conflict… comes to a close where both people can live together in peace, prosperity and security. That’s the dream. And I think it’s possible. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

On Sunday, EU foreign policy czar Josep Borrell issued a statement saying he was “deeply worried” about Israel’s decision to open the bidding process for construction at Givat Hamatos.

“This is a key location between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Any settlement construction will cause serious damage to the prospects for a viable and contiguous Palestinian State and, more broadly, to the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution in line with the internationally agreed parameters and with Jerusalem as the future capital of two states,” he said.

The EU, along with many international observers, refers to Israeli neighborhoods within East Jerusalem as settlements, whereas Israel sees both East and West Jerusalem as its unified capital.

A general view of the Givat Hamatos settlement in east Jerusalem is seen on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. A settlement watchdog group said Sunday that Israel is moving ahead with new construction of hundreds of homes in the strategic east Jerusalem settlement that threatens to cut off parts of the city claimed by Palestinians from the West Bank. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov also expressed great concern over the Givat Hamatos project.

“If built, it would further consolidate a ring of settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. It would significantly damage prospects for a future contiguous Palestinian State and for achieving a negotiated two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states,” he said.

The Palestinians, too, condemned the plan.

The new planned construction is “a continuation of the occupation government’s attempts to kill the internationally supported two-state solution and a disregard of all the resolutions of the international legitimacy that have repeatedly affirmed the illegality of settlements,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The occupation government’s continued bidding for new settlement housing units will not change the fact that all settlements are doomed to end, and that these settlements are illegal and violate all international decisions and laws,” the Palestinian official added.

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