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Upgrade Palestinian rights
The disproportionate and indiscriminate actions by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead rightly earned Israel's leaders international opprobrium, and in some cases the verbal outrage was backed by concrete sanctions. Having last year declared an upgrading of relations with Israel, the EU decided last month to put the process on hold in the wake of the carnage in Gaza.
The freeze was cautiously welcomed by many NGOs working to promote human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, which applauded the EU's decision but questioned the motivation. According to Gerard Horton, a lawyer for Defence for Children International (DCI), the worry is that the suspension is merely a political ploy, "and that once the dust settles [and Cast Lead is out of the headlines], the process of upgrading will restart once more".
DCI speculates that the temporary halt could even have been implemented to assist Israel in the long term, since Israel's current plunge in popularity would have hampered the chances of pushing through various aspects of the upgrading bill. In DCI's opinion, the real issue isn't simply the onslaught on Gaza, but a wider, decades-old systematic abuse of human rights on the part of Israel, which – until it is remedied – ought to prevent any unconditional enhancement of relations between the EU and Israel.
Any upgrade with Israel is, according to the EU's partnership agreement, contingent on Israel displaying appropriate regard for human rights: "Relations between the parties … shall be based on a respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal policy and constitutes an essential element of this agreement."
It is no secret that Israel shows a flagrant disregard for such human rights benchmarks, as DCI's own tireless work in the field demonstrates. The group has documented countless incidents of individual illegal punishments against Palestinian minors, which go hand in hand with Israel's overall policy of collective punishment against the Palestinian people by way of the 40-year-old occupation.
To that end, DCI's advocacy officer, Isabelle Guitard, has been campaigning for more than a year to urge the EU to apply the letter of the law when it comes to the economic carrot being dangled in front of Israel's leaders. She is pushing for the EU to demand Israel comply with five basic guidelines before giving the green light to any upgrading of Israel's status.
"Our recommendations are not at all unreasonable," she says. "They are basic measures, including raising the age of majority for Palestinian children from 16 to 18, in line with Israeli domestic legislation. We also call for an end to administrative detention for under-18s, and that all interrogations of those under 18 in Israel and the OPT are conducted in the presence of a lawyer and relative of the detainee, and that the interview is video-recorded."
In theory, there should be no reason for Israel to deny such fundamental rights to Palestinian minors, but – as history attests – Israel has a habit of tossing ethics and morality out of the nearest window when clamping down on those under its control in the occupied territories.
While such abuses continue, Guitard and Horton contend, any benefits bestowed on Israel by the EU will simply reward Israel for crimes towards the Palestinians. They believe the EU has a golden opportunity to encourage Israel to behave responsibly towards its Palestinian neighbours, and that rushing through an upgrade with scant regard for the small print of the deal is an unprincipled way to proceed.
"We are not calling for a [blanket] cancellation of the agreement," Guitard notes, explaining that DCI is not averse to trade between the EU and Israel. "We want dialogue with Israel – but the EU should not [shy away] from putting pressure on Israel to comply with its legal obligations when the opportunity arises."
EU officials, for their part, have welcomed the research and data-gathering of DCI and its partner NGOs, which "equip them with the tools they need to negotiate [with Israel]", according to Horton. However, without an acceptance on the Israeli side that its human rights record needs improvement, or a firm line taken by the EU towards Israel's actions, the chances of success for DCI's campaign remain remote.
However, Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither does DCI expect overnight results in its quest for child rights in the occupied territories. "If you expected everything you did to have an [immediate] effect, you'd soon become disillusioned," Horton comments. "But we have to keep bringing these issues to people's attention, in the hope that eventually the truth seeps into the public consciousness. Just as Israel repeats its own line over and over, so too [must NGOs like ours]."
If Israel refuses to accept that DCI's demands are workable, and – more importantly – just and fair, it will be another sorry day for integrity inside both Israel and the chambers of the European Union. Nothing for which DCI is asking should be unpalatable to anyone with a true interest in morality; a refusal to heed its call will speak volumes about those blocking the path of justice, and those giving carte blanche to do so from the sidelines.