Israel on edge of international law, Brussels says

The European Commission on Wednesday (5 July) came close to saying Israel's attack on Gaza violates international law, as socialist and liberal MEPs accused the EU of double standards on Tel Aviv.

"The Israeli military must stop collectively punishing Palestinians and putting civilian lives at risk. And I must say, it does raise questions of international law," external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told MEPs in Strasbourg.

"Israel has to understand its responsibility for the well-being of the Palestinian people," she added. "Those detained [by Israel] must be accorded their full legal rights."

Her remarks come after talks on kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit broke down on Tuesday night threatening a full-scale Israeli invasion of the densely-populated, poverty-stricken Gaza strip.

Israel has knocked out Gaza's electricity and water and sealed the border in response to the Shalit crisis, blocking EU efforts to start humanitarian aid payments on 1 July. It has also seized 64 Hamas government officials and bombed Palestinian Authority buildings.

Meanwhile, a Gaza-fired rocket on Tuesday night hit an empty school in the Israeli town of Ashkelon, within earshot of 80 EU border monitors housed nearby.

"We heard it. But we don't have the feeling that we are at risk," an EU border mission spokeswoman told EUobserver from Ashkelon. "The strange thing is people here are so used to this, life just goes on as normal."

Wording matters

Ms Ferrero-Waldner's comment - bracketed by appeals for Mr Shalit's release - echoes the Swiss foreign ministry, which said on Monday that Israel's assault is "forbidden by international" because it "is a form of collective punishment."

But the EU's Finnish presidency and EU top diplomat Javier Solana have been softer on Israel so far, expressing "concern" and "regret" while saying Israel and Palestine - not the EU - must find a solution to the crisis.

"In my view, our reaction has been extremely-well balanced and highlights the need for both sides to act to diffuse the situation," Finnish EU affairs minister Paula Lehtomaki stated. "We also call on Israel to end the military operation."

The largest group in the European Parliament - the conservatives - took a similar line, with German foreign affairs committee chief and conservative MEP Elmar Brok urging diplomacy and a return to two-state talks.

"It's really hard to say who is right and who is wrong in this circle of violence," he said, while British conservative MEP Charles Tannock and Polish conservative Marek Siwiec went further in backing Israeli leader Ehud Olmert.

"Olmert had no choice. The Palestinians must understand that every action engenders a reaction," Mr Tannock said.

Bloody murder

But left-wing MEPs accused Israel of using the Shilat crisis to try and topple the newly-elected Hamas government, while highlighting Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians in June and the fact Israel currently holds 9,600 Palestinian "political prisoners" in its jails.

"A state that acts like this is no different from a terrorist organisation," Belgian socialist MEP and the former head of the EU's Gaza election monitoring mission, Veronique de Keyser, said. "We have to say: enough - you have gone mad."

"Where's the condemnation from Europe? There is none," British liberal Chris Davies added. "The double standards are rank. We make the Palestinians jump through hoops but we we let the Israelis get away with bloody murder."

[Source: By Andrew Rettman, Euobserver, Brussels, 05Jul06]

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