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In recent days, we have seen an alarming increase in violence in the Middle East. So far, the fighting between rival Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip has claimed more than 50 lives.
In the past week, more than 150 Qassam rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip onto Israeli towns. Yesterday evening, an Israeli woman died. More than 30 Palestinians have already been killed as a result of the Israeli military response.
There is a real danger that the situation could escalate further. The ceasefire agreed between the Palestinians and Israelis in November is crumbling before our eyes in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian reconciliation achieved in Mecca in February with the help of the Saudis is teetering on the brink.
The agreement reached in Mecca brought about the end of the Islamist government led solely by Hamas. Since 18 March, there has been a new Palestinian government of national unity.
It should be noted that an overwhelming majority – 83 out of 86 members of parliament, including all Hamas and Fatah members – had endorsed the new government in a vote of confidence. (39 members of parliament are currently in Israeli detention.)
However, in the international community, there is still a broad consensus that the Palestinian government has not yet fully passed the litmus test. After all, this government does not fully satisfy the three Quartet criteria either.
Despite this, the European Union has continued providing humanitarian aid for the Palestinians. This has totalled 300 million euro, more than in previous years.
However, the complete normalization of our relations with the Palestinians can only be achieved on the basis of the Quartet criteria: recognition of the State of Israel’s right to exist, recognition of previous agreements between Israel and the PLO, and a complete renunciation of violence.
With regard to the renunciation of violence, however, there is still a long way to go. In the coming days, we expect the Palestinian government to take effective action against the Qassam rocket attacks and for the release of the Israeli soldier Shalit.
Nevertheless, the European Union has taken advantage of the end of the Hamas-led government to move forward again with its Middle East policy:
- Our Foreign Ministers have re-established contact with government members who recognize the Quartet criteria. President Abbas deserves our full support.
- The EU is in close contact with Finance Minister Fayyad and is assisting him in building up transparent financial institutions and mechanisms because, after all, improving the financial and economic situation is the goal of us all. The EU has repeatedly called for the customs duties and taxes withheld by Israel to be released. If that were to happen, it would contribute towards this goal.
For months now, the Presidency has been pushing for a revival of the Middle East Quartet and the closer involvement of constructive Arab partners.
After some initial success, it is now chiefly a question of maintaining the momentum that has been achieved. For us, this means that we must do even more to move the efforts of all participants in the Middle East peace process forward:
- To date, the bilateral meetings between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have not generated any tangible success. Something has to happen here: there must be a significant improvement in access and mobility for Palestinians; assurances given by the Israeli side must now be put into practice and the Palestinians themselves must do more than I feel they are currently doing to renounce violence and release the Israeli soldier Shalit.
- The Arab League, thanks mainly to the hard work and commitment of Saudi Arabia, has reiterated its Peace Initiative of March 2002. At our invitation, a first successful meeting between the Arab League and the EU took place at the last Council session on 14 May. The Arab League has held further talks with the Quartet and also with Israel. Although these efforts are no substitute for bilateral negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, the Peace Initiative can generate a positive climate in which this could happen. Consequently, the EU should continue to support this.
- As holders of the Presidency, we are endeavouring to organize another meeting of the Middle East Quartet in the next few days.
Progress has been slow but, despite our scepticism, we must not allow ourselves to become resigned. In recent months, the European Union has become increasingly aware of the growing role it has to play. We are ready to assume the greater degree of responsibility which comes with that.
Thank you for your attention.