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25th Jun 2017

EU rebuke masks ongoing divisions on Israel

  • Former Turkish ambassador: 'I am sure that if there had been a fourth option, some of the member states would have taken it' (Photo: the half-blood prince)

The EU's mild rebuke of Israel over its avowed boycott of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) masks the fact that several member states sympathise with Israel's view.

"The EU ... regrets Israel's announced disengagement from the Human Rights Council. This UN body should be able to address all human rights issues and situations. It is a place open for debate, where it is important to have all voices present," EU foreign relations spokesman Michael Mann said on Tuesday (27 March).

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The official line comes after Israel said on Monday it is severing all contact with UNHCR top envoy, Navi Pillay, because the Geneva-based institution wants to send her on a fact-finding mission to see what Israeli settlers are doing in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the UNHCR is "hypocritical" and "detached from reality" because it lets delegates from Syria and Palestinian militants Hamas speak at its meetings.

Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas of orchestrating the decision in what he called an act of "diplomatic terror."

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman called the decision "surrealistic" because the UNHCR should talk about Arab dictators instead. The ministry also summoned Austria and Belgium's ambassadors to Israel for an official dressing-down after the two countries voted in favour of the move.

The Yes vote by the two EU states stood in contrast to abstentions by the six other EU countries which currently hold UNHCR membership: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and Spain.

Only the US voted No. The other 39 members - including China, Norway, Russia and Switzerland - voted Yes.

For its part, the European External Action Service (EEAS) had tried to ensure there was a concerted EU position on the Navi Pillay mission. But EU division on Irsael is nothing new.

The last time there was a UN vote on Israel - in November 2011 on whether Palestine should be allowed to join its heritage body, Unesco - five EU countris voted No, 11 voted Yes and 11 abstained. The time before that - in 2010, on a UNHCR resolution on Israel's assault on the Gaza flotilla - there was also a three-way split.

"I am sure that if there had been a fourth option, some of the member states would have taken it," Turkey's former EU ambassador Selim Kuneralp commented on the 2010 voting.

Meanwhile, it is unclear what Israel's anger at the UNHCR, Austria and Belgium will mean in practice.

Asked whether Pillay will be allowed to go to the West Bank on her fact-finding tour, the spokesman of the Israeli mission to the EU, Yoel Mester, told this website: "We have no intention of co-operating with this mission."

Asked if there will be consequences for Israeli-Austrian and Israeli-Belgian relations, he said: "We are very much disappointed by this vote and we voiced this through the proper diplomatic channels ... but it's not going to affect our bilateral relations with those two countries."

As for facts in the West Bank, they are no secret.

Between 200,000 and 320,000 Palestinians used to live in the Jordan Valley before Israel occupied it in 1967. But now there are fewer than 60,000. Some 1,200 Jews lived in the region before the war. But 310,000 live there today.

Update: This article was altered on 29 March to add the quote 'We have no intention of co-operating with this mission' from Yoel Mester

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