AMSTERDAM // New tensions have arisen between Israel and the European Union over the issue of settler violence against Palestinians.
The flare-up comes just ahead of tomorrow's vote in the UN General Assembly on the Palestinian Authority's request for non-member state status.
An increasing number of European countries are considering backing that move. Their support is seen as symbolically important, even though passage in the general assembly is virtually assured.
The vote comes at a time of increasing EU frustration with Israeli policies. The EU's Political and Security Committee, comprising the EU-ambassadors of all member states, earlier this month issued a wide-ranging memo on the escalation in violent attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians civilians in the West Bank. "If settler violence is not dealt with preventively, it will increasingly obstruct efforts by both parties for solving the conflict," the committee concluded.
The violent acts range from vandalising mosques and uprooting olive trees to attacking individuals or vehicles in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Among the most concrete European steps proposed was the option to monitor Israeli trials against violent settlers to make sure that they were held accountable. Another controversial recommendation was for member states to explore the possibility of barring violent settlers from receiving visas. This may face legal obstacles if the individuals concerned have not been convicted of a crime, but a western diplomat said that such measures could also be applied to people deemed a threat to a country's national security and to known human-rights offenders.
Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor was quoted in the Haaretz newspaper on Monday as calling the committee's recommendation an "inflammatory proposal".
The EU, spurred on by several countries that have taken up the issue, notably the United Kingdom and Denmark, has over recent years started paying more attention to the issue of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. In May, the bloc's foreign ministers issued a warning. "The EU expresses deep concern about developments on the ground which threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."
Several countries have issued guidelines for the labelling of products from Israeli settlements to let the public decide if it wants to purchase them. More countries are now considering similar initiatives.
Despite such steps in member countries, the EU-wide policy on settler violence is not expected to change soon. Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, told The National: "On the EU level, we are not considering barring violent settlers but member states might consider doing so. This is their area of competence."
The EU's policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely seen as ineffective and the division between member states only contributes to that, said Yossi Mekelberg at the UK's Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. "The European Union is struggling with what to do about the settlements, whether it is the violence or the issue of settlement products. There is no coherent policy."
Ms Kocijancic, the EU spokesperson, said that on the issue of Palestine's UN upgrade bid, the bloc's members states were also still in consultation. But a unified EU stance is unlikely, according to most observers.
Most European countries are still officially undecided but France has indicated it will vote in favour while many are wavering. The UK and Germany, two major prizes for the Palestinian vote, are now considering changing their position from opposed to in favour, or at least an abstention, on condition that the PA introduces several compromises into its application. There are conflicting reports on whether this has been done or not.
Main among the reported British concerns was that the status upgrade at the UN would not allow it to refer human rights cases against Israelis to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The Palestinians also had to commit to returning to peace talks and going no further at the UN to unilaterally seek full member status.
Mr Mekelberg said that it makes sense for Europe to support the Palestinian Authority's request. "If you want to weaken Hamas, you need to strengthen the PA and give them an achievement."