Ursula Von der Leyen should apologize for whitewashing Israel’s apartheid regime
The congratulatory video message recorded by the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to mark Israel’s 75th Independence Day last week was a blatant insult to millions of Palestinians living under occupation and in the diaspora. Moreover, it was an affront to anyone who is disgusted by Israel’s immoral and illegal 56-year occupation of Palestinian territories, the 16-year siege of Gaza, the building of illegal settlements, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the incarceration and killing of children and the repugnant violation of UN resolutions and international conventions and laws, in addition to numerous human rights violations.
The fact that such an unabashed message failed to refer to the occupation or the Palestinian right to self-determination can only be a sign of either ignorance, which cannot be forgiven, or acquiescence, which is criminal. The colonial-era trope uttered by her in reference to making “the desert bloom” resurrects falsehoods spread by the Zionist hasbara propaganda machine many decades ago about a promised land that had no native inhabitants and no civilization that goes back thousands of years.
It is no wonder that her message, celebrating Israel’s “vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East,” was condemned by the Palestinian Authority and thousands of social media activists. For starters, one cannot mention Israel’s so-called independence without referring to the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1947-48 and beyond. These two events are intertwined and always will be; one people’s liberation came at the expense of another.
And if Von der Leyen rejects the Palestinian narrative, she should check the historical accounts of respected Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe, Tamar Novick and Benny Morris about massacres and ethnic cleansing crimes committed by the Irgun, Lehi — also known as the Stern Gang — and Haganah during Israel’s war of independence against the Palestinians. More than 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their ancestral homes and tens of villages were destroyed forever.
But one does not have to go that far back in history. The claim that Israel is a democracy is also false. How can a state that occupies an entire people for more than five decades be described as a democracy? Again, the European Commission president should check the indictment of one of Israel’s most-respected human rights organizations, B’Tselem, which in January 2021 reported that “in the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians.”
The European Commission head should check how many EU-funded schools Israel has demolished in recent years
B’Tselem added that “a regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime.” And it concluded: “These accumulated measures … form the basis for our conclusion that the bar for labeling the Israeli regime as apartheid has been met.” Its case also rested on Israel passing the Nation-State of the Jewish People law in 2018.
The same label was soon adopted by Amnesty International, which declared that its “investigation shows that Israel imposes a system of oppression and domination against Palestinians across all areas under its control: in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and against Palestinian refugees, in order to benefit Jewish Israelis. This amounts to apartheid as prohibited in international law.” The same conclusion was reached by Human Rights Watch, also in 2021.
As for Von der Leyen’s provocative statement that Europe and Israel share common values, she should check some figures related to Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and its siege of the Gaza Strip. In the first quarter of 2023, the Israeli military killed 95 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 17 children, according to the UN. At least 4,765 Palestinian prisoners, of whom 971 were administrative detainees, were held in Israeli jails at the start of March this year, according to Haaretz. Administrative detainees can be held for an open-ended period of time without charges and without trial.
Furthermore, since the start of this year, Israeli forces have demolished at least 47 Palestinian-built structures in occupied East Jerusalem, including inhabited and uninhabited homes, stores and other structures. This is a war crime under international law. Moreover, Israel continues to approve new illegal settlement building in the West Bank, in violation of international laws. Are these the shared values that Von der Leyen is referring to?
Finally, Israel blocked a visit by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, earlier this year because he dared to criticize Israel’s policies in the West Bank. It has also barred UN envoys from visiting the Occupied Territories on numerous occasions.
And with reference to Brussels’ partnership with Israel, Von der Leyen should check how many EU-funded schools Israel has demolished in recent years. By 2017, Israel had destroyed at least $74 million-worth of EU-funded projects in the Occupied Territories, including schools, playgrounds and agricultural initiatives, according to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. In response, eight EU countries demanded that Israel compensate them for the demolition of new school facilities for Bedouin communities in the West Bank. No compensation was ever received.
Last year, an EU delegation visiting the West Bank said it was “appalled” after Israeli forces destroyed a primary school in Masafer Yatta. And, in 2021, a group of 160 academics from 21 countries urged the European Commission to “use its leverage” and ban Israeli universities from receiving funds from an EU program worth over $100 billion. In a letter, they said that “the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in Israel’s structural violence perpetrated against Palestinians across historic Palestine has been broadly and systematically documented.”
Echoing Israeli propaganda about making the desert bloom and shared democratic values is an attempt to whitewash an apartheid regime. Von der Leyen’s rhetoric reeks of obscene Orientalist bigotry and she must apologize to the Palestinians, who continue to suffer under the oldest colonial occupation in modern times.
- Osama Al-Sharif