Sue you, E.U.

As tensions between Israel and Europe rise, Israeli victims of a Palestinian attack are suing the European Union for giving money to the Palestinian Authority.

Published June 1, 2002 7:15PM (EDT)

One hot August night last year, the Blumberg family from the Jewish settlement of Karnei Shomron in the northern West Bank were driving their car along one of the dark, winding roads of the area when a hail of bullets suddenly rained down upon them. Tehiya (Hebrew for "renaissance") Blumberg was killed and her husband, Steven, and their 14-year old daughter, Tzipi, were left paralyzed by the attack, which Israeli authorities say was carried out by two Palestinian police officers.

Almost eight months later, the attack and its aftermath have come to highlight the sharp deterioration in relations, not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between the Jewish state and Europe. Steven Blumberg and his five children are suing the European Union for $20.7 million over his wife's death. The case was filed recently and is expected to go to court in Israel later this year. Blumberg and his injured daughter are also suing over their wounds.

The Blumbergs' lawyer, Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, accuses the 15-member E.U. of recklessly providing the Palestinian Authority with money that it knew would be used for attacks on Israelis. "I can safely say that if the E.U. had not provided that money to the Palestinians, hundreds of Israelis would still be alive today and maybe thousands would not have been wounded," says Darshan-Leitner. She is adamant that the Israeli government has warned the E.U. time and again that its funding of the P.A. was endangering lives. The U.S., she says, stopped giving money to the P.A. after the start of the Al-Aqsa intifada when the Palestinians were not able to account for where it went. (The U.S. provides $75 million a year in indirect humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, none of it to the P.A.) Darshan-Leitner says she is also looking into the possibility of bringing suit against the P.A. and the E.U. in the United States.

The case goes to the heart of two sensitive, and highly emotional, issues that have come to play a central role in the conflict: the degree to which the P.A. is responsible for attacks against Israelis, and the moral status of such attacks. The Israeli position is that the attacks, whether inside Israel itself or in the occupied territories, are directed and funded by the official P.A. structure. Earlier this month Israel's minister of parliamentary affairs, Danny Naveh, presented a report that officially leveled the same accusation brought by the British-born Blumbergs. The report contained purported P.A. documents that Israel claims prove that E.U. money sent every month to pay P.A. salaries and other expenses was used to finance terrorist attacks against civilians.

"There are hundreds of terrorists who get their monthly salary from the Palestinian Authority and, indirectly, from the European Union. Arafat allowed this European money to be used to pay the salaries of these people," Naveh said.

The P.A. called the documents "forgeries." E.U. officials denied that E.U. aid was being misused, saying that the documents did not prove that E.U. money went to militant groups. The officials added that P.A. expenditures of all E.U. monies are closely monitored by the International Monetary Fund.

The charges against the E.U. throw into sharp relief the profound historical and philosophical differences between Europe's view of the conflict and the United States'. The Europeans see the occupation as the underlying problem and tend to regard Palestinian violence as an understandable if not necessarily justified response to it, while the U.S., following the logic of its war on terrorism, has unequivocally condemned Palestinian terrorism.

An episode in April made starkly clear how much Israel mistrusts the E.U. compared to the U.S. At the height of the offensive in the West Bank, Israel refused to let E.U. foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana and a delegation of Europeans meet with Arafat -- but only days later, the American special envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, was granted access to the beleaguered Palestinian leader. The snub caused a storm of government-level indignation in Europe, possibly contributing to the severe criticism the continent leveled at Israel during the West Bank invasion.

Some of the harshest of that criticism came from an unlikely source: Germany. Highly sensitive to its Holocaust-haunted past, Germany has traditionally been more friendly to Israel than many other European nations have. So when several political leaders of a conservative political party bitterly attacked Israel for its military actions in the occupied territories, tensions rose both in Germany and in Israel.

Juergen Moellemann, the deputy leader of the German Free Democratic Party, a staid and conservative party known for its free-market beliefs, accused Israel of "trampling international law" with its military actions in the West Bank. This would perhaps not have been so objectionable, but he followed it up by apparently condoning suicide bombings, saying, "What would one do if Germany were occupied? I would also resist, and resist by force. It would then be my mission to resist. And I would do it not only in my own land, but also in the land of the aggressor." Moellemann also sponsored and backed a former Green Party member, Syrian-born Jamal Karsli, who moved to the FDP and then accused Israel of using "Nazi methods." Karsli was removed from the party but Moellemann was not reprimanded.

All the main parties in Germany, including the ruling Social Democrats, the conservative Christian Democrats and foreign minister Fischer's Greens strongly condemned the FDP's stance. The FDP was accused of employing anti-Israel sentiments to curry favor with the far right in the run-up to September's general elections. Israel was outraged: The FDP's leader, Guido Westerwelle, who was in Israel this week, was snubbed by Israeli politicians, with even the head of the Israeli opposition, Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Meretz Party, canceling a meeting with him. As for Westerwelle, he defended his party's stance, saying that criticism of Israeli policies did not constitute anti-Semitism and adding, "Israel has a friend in Germany. Anti-Semitism has to be fought everywhere."

In a meeting with Westerwelle, Israeli President Moshe Katzav repeated what has become an Israeli refrain in recent months. "The European countries have a right to criticize Israeli policy," Katzav said, but he added, "There is no justification for any kind of outbreak of anti-Semitism, as I sense it taking place in Europe in recent months."

The European view that the occupation, not terrorism, is the real issue has made the E.U. very unpopular in Israel. In addition, Israelis -- many of whom already have deep-rooted suspicions about European anti-Semitism -- have been disturbed by anti-Semitic incidents in Europe during the intifada, such as attacks on synagogues in Germany and France in recent months. Israelis' mistrust of Europe was reinforced even by the gaudy Eurovision song contest this week, when presenters in Belgium and Sweden and a Danish singer are alleged to have influenced viewers of the live event not to vote for the Israeli entry, because of "the situation" and "what Israel is doing to the Palestinians." The event may not have meant much even to most Europeans, but in the Israeli press it was front-page news and the anti-Semitic connection was quickly made.

Some Israelis, however, don't agree that European criticism of Israel's actions is necessarily anti-Semitic, and warn of the dangers of using the epithet too freely. "Every government that criticizes the occupation is automatically branded anti-Semitic. Every European newspaper that publishes accounts of civil rights violations is automatically added to the list of Jew haters," wrote Akiva Eldar in Ha'aretz, Israel's most prestigious newspaper.

As President Katzav's reaction to the FDP controversy demonstrates, Israel favors an aggressive stance against what it sees as a biased and perhaps bigoted Europe. In that context, the lawsuit against the E.U. represents an ideal weapon for beating the Europeans over the head.

In May, government minister Danny Naveh presented an official file, allegedly detailing the way in which E.U. money was used for attacks. (The E.U. gives the P.A. some $9 million a month for salaries and other regular expenses; Arab countries contribute $40 million.) At the time, Naveh said: "I'm sure that the intention of the E.U. was good -- to help the P.A. to build their economy. Unfortunately what is wrong here ... is the way the Palestinians decided to use the E.U. money for terror." Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, the Blumbergs' lawyer, says that the lawsuit has nothing to do with the government's crusade and that she was examining the possibilities of such a case even before the presentation of the file.

The fact that the tragic Blumberg case involves a shooting allegedly carried out by P.A. police officers may make it easier to tie the authority financially to it than to most attacks, including suicide attacks inside Israel. The E.U. office in Tel Aviv, however, says that it has not yet received any conclusive evidence establishing a link between the E.U. money and the attacks. That means the Europeans are not convinced by the Israeli evidence, since Naveh's office says it has been given to them. The U.S. State Department earlier this month also said it was unconvinced by documents that Israel claimed proved Arafat knew about terrorist attacks, and that it needed more information to determine the role of the upper echelons of the P.A., including financial officers.

The E.U., for its part, has accused Israel of destroying millions of dollars in E.U.-funded projects in the occupied territories during its invasion. International donors estimated the total physical damages at $361 million, with the total cost much higher.

A spokesman for the E.U. office acknowledged that there is "absolutely an anti-European feeling in Israel at the moment, partly because of the allegations over the funding." On the other hand, regular ties seem not to have been affected. The E.U. is Israel's largest trading partner and has a free-trade agreement with the country. Trade figures declined somewhat in the first quarter, but this is not thought to have any relation to diplomatic tensions. Science and cultural links continue more or less as before. Shlomo Gur, who heads the E.U.-Israel Forum, a group dedicated to fostering ties between Israel and Europe, says he is convinced that Europe and Israel have so much in common -- trade, democracy, values, culture, history -- that in the long run both sides will realize that "convergence" is inevitable. Unspoken behind these sentiments lies the hope that when it comes down to it, Europe will not abandon Israel totally.

On the Palestinian side, the question of P.A. responsibility for terrorist attacks is a key factor in calls for a top-to-bottom reform of the authority, including a reorganization of its security services. This week Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under huge domestic and international pressure, finally signed the so-called basic law that is intended to lay the groundwork for a full-fledged Palestinian constitution, after having let it gather dust for five years. The law will, among other things, encourage the creation of an independent judiciary, provide more safeguards for media freedoms and make the president more accountable. Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib called it a positive step, but sounded the usual warnings. "We have to wait and see how these things are implemented in practice," he said.

It may be no coincidence that Arafat signed the law on the eve of a veritable deluge of foreign visitors, all of whom will be assessing how much political and diplomatic progress will be possible in the near future. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and CIA Director George Tenet will both spend the weekend in Israel and the Palestinian territories -- Burns to assess the political climate, Tenet to gauge the ability and willingness of the Palestinian security services to reorganize. E.U. official Solana and Germany's foreign minister Joschka Fischer will also be traveling to the region this weekend.

On the eve of the visits, but after Arafat had already signed the basic law, President Bush saw fit yet again to exhort the Palestinian leader to fulfill what the United States sees as his task in leading his people to statehood. "Mr. Arafat needs to be responsible," Bush said. "And part of that responsibility is to reform a security force so that it will actually keep security in the region." Bush also addressed bookkeeping and money-flow concerns stemming from widespread P.A. corruption. It was important to "keep good books," he said, so that aid money does not "end up in somebody's pocket."

The Bush administration has hinted that the Burns and Tenet visits will be used to delay plans for a regional summit that was supposed to have taken place by early summer. Secretary of State Colin Powell is said to be advocating a timeline for negotiations, but the White House is apparently resisting this. In addition to Powell, Bush is under pressure from moderate Arab states to lay out a clear U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood, but he is not expected to do so until at least after he meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the end of next week, if then. Saying that Powell was still trying to find the right place and time for a conference, Bush said, "We are making progress on a strategy that will put the underpinnings of a Palestinian state in place and it's going to take a while. We recognize that. But we're going to continue to work the issue very hard." Powell, for his part, said that everything would become clearer after the return of Burns and Tenet.

Beyond the P.A. reforms, there are two other reasons the Bush administration is dragging its feet on the Middle East conflict. The administration sees U.S. intervention as politically risky: The U.S. public has voiced strong if nuanced support for Israel, and the Jewish vote could play a key role in several states in the November elections. Any significant U.S. movement toward Palestinian statehood is likely to place it at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- the last thing Bush wants. Backpedaling by the U.S. on military action against Iraq -- an issue much more important to it than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- is also a factor in the delay.

Many analysts on both sides worry that with so many crucial issues in flux, the U.S.'s lack of urgency about the crisis may have dire consequences. Khatib points out that the issues being debated now by Palestinians involve far more than reforming the P.A. In a recent issue of the online Israeli-Palestinian discussion forum, Khatib noted that "sometimes [the internal Palestinian debate] is about reform and corruption, sometimes it is over the use of various forms of resistance, and other times it is about whether to continue the intifada. In all cases, these internal fights are drawing on the energy usually invested by Palestinians in the fight and their confrontations with the Israeli side."

More ominously, Khatib argues that the internal political struggles in both Israel and the Palestinian camp could actually pose a danger to a peaceful resolution rather than providing an opportunity. "These power struggles appeal to extremist fad politics and do not address the vital interests of both sides in returning the Palestinian-Israeli relationship to one of negotiations, rather than confrontation," he wrote. "Indeed, they seem to multiply the tension between Palestinians and Israelis by nurturing the arguments for and encouragement of extremist politics on the opposing side. In the final analysis, this will only feed the deepening hatred and consequent gulf of violence between the two. Peace advocates among both Palestinians and Israelis must buck this trend with a central strategy of addressing the internal politics of their own people."

One concern -- which points out the shortcomings of viewing P.A. reforms simply as a synonym for cracking down on terrorism -- is that many Palestinian opposition groups that are exerting pressure to reform the P.A. are actually demanding a more militant policy toward Israel.

At the same time, Palestinians are now openly debating whether to restrict attacks only to soldiers and settlers, making the Palestinian struggle more defensible in the eyes of world opinion, both in Europe and to a lesser degree in the United States.

For many Israelis, this debate is meaningless: They make no distinction between attacks inside Israel and those on soldiers and settlers, calling both of them acts of terrorism. Most do make a political distinction, though. In a recent Dahaf Institute poll, which was commissioned by the Peace Coalition in Israel, 59 percent of those questioned said they believe a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip would lead to the renewal of the peace process, and 72 percent felt it would improve the country's international standing.

There is also a significant reservoir of resentment against the settlers for complicating both the security of the country and a future peace deal. Akiva Eldar wrote this week in Ha'aretz that at least Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and its militant offshoots may be willing to consider a cease-fire inside Israel. But the continuing expansion of settlements, he wrote, makes it certain that "the option of ceasing the intifada inside the occupied territories is considered by Palestinians to be about as realistic as the possibility the Sharon government will cease expropriating land for the purpose of building bypass roads."

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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