“By granting Israel a blank cheque to carry out a genocide against Palestinians, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen have harmed European values and can no longer take the moral high ground on issues like universal human rights, rule of law, and the sanctity of life,” says Karl Schembri, a Maltese humanitarian worker and former journalist who spent four years working in Gaza, between 2009 and 2013.
Speaking to The Journal from Kenya, where he is now based, Schembri denounced the visit that the two centre-right EU leaders made to Israel six days after the unprecedented surprise assault on Israel by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip on the 7th October – an attack that killed more than 1,300 Israelis. “They did the right thing in condemning Hamas’ attack, as it is nothing but deplorable,” he said. “However, the leaders of two of the EU’s most important institutions not only failed to call on Israel to respect international law and protect civilians in its war on Gaza, but gave their blessing to a pre-announced genocide in full knowledge of Israel’s clear intentions. They gave the impression that they were speaking on behalf of all of us European citizens, but they betrayed us; these are not our values. Israelis are striking Palestinian civlians in Gaza as if they were shooting fish in a tank. There is no regard for human life, and the EU has condoned this. Our leaders have shown abysmal hypocrisy and double standards.”
In Schembri’s view, the message that has been hammered home by Metsola and von der Leyen is that Palestinian lives don’t matter. Their slaughtering in their thousands is considered as a necessary evil. They are branded as “human shields”, and instead of seeing them as human victims that need to be saved, a licence is issued for them to be killed.
Since their expression of what has been described as “uncontrolled support” to Israel, Metsola and von der Leyen have taken flak from several fronts, including from their own staff working around the world. Furthermore, Iratxe García, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament, was quoted by Politico as saying: “Both Ursula von der Leyen and Roberta Metsola were right to show Europe’s solidarity and absolute condemnation for Hamas’ terrorist attacks. However, as chief representatives of the EU and its institutions, they had the duty to represent the position of the Union as a whole, including its Member States. With their visit to Israel, they failed.”
Karl Schembri asks what kept Metsola and von der Leyen from visiting the Gaza Strip too, while they were only a stone throw’s away from it. They could have visited a hospital, a school, or a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) facility which was hosting hundreds of thousands of people, and which has since then been hit by Israeli strikes, he suggests.
He notes that the backpedalling efforts that have been seen coming from Brussels following the widespread backlash shows that the bloc has realised it has shot itself – and its international credibility – in the foot, he notes. Having said that, we ask him whether this incident can be justified as a genuine error of judgement by EU leaders who are not as smart as they try to give European citizens the impression that they are? “Could it be, perhaps, that at that moment they were thinking only about their future political careers?” Karl asks in response.
Despite ackowledging its faux pas, the EU still continues to follow other allies of Israel, primarily the US and the UK, in refusing to call for a ceasefire. Instead, it now keeps speaking in vague terms on “Israel’s right to defend itself, in full respect of international humanitarian law” withiut taking action.
“Malta saying and doing the right things”
Karl Schembri notes the contrast between the EU’s stand and the foreign policy adopted by its tiniest Member State, Malta, with regard to the war in Gaza.
Malta is currently using its position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to spearhead an initiative by the ten non-permanent member States on a text for a Council resolution they hope can garner consensus and address the dire situation on the ground in Gaza.
Observers at the UN told The Journal that Malta’s latest proposal has been widely accepted as one of leadership, showing how even a small nation can have a huge impact when it acts in a principled, consistent, neutral manner in favour of peace and human rights.
“In this case the Maltese government is saying and doing the right things, taking the side of international law and justice,” said Schembri. “We should continue focusing on using our privileged position on the UNSC, in whichever way we can, not only to call for a ceasefire but also to exploit the current focus to find a long-lasting solution to the root causes of this conflict – a solution that must include the establishment of a Palestinian state. It’s also important that our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister remain consistent in their message that we urgently need a ceasefire – even when a lot of other countries keep refusing to take the same position.”
For Karl Schembri, this is not a time for hollow words and catchy soundbytes, as innocent people are being slaughtered round the clock. Around 9,500 Palestinians have lost their lives as a result of Israel’s incessant heavy bombardment of Gaza. Almost half of all civilian structures in Gaza have been destroyed. He is adamant: unless a ceasefire is called without further delay, these blatant crimes against humanity will continue. The international community must take action now.
He recounted how he keeps sending messages to his friends and former colleagues in Gaza, hoping to receive a reply when telephone and internet services in the territory are available. He feels a sight of relief whenever his question “How are you?” brings back a message reading “I’m alive”. No one should have to live in such fear and despair.
Karl Schembri expresses his regret at how Metsola and von der Leyen, like many politicians and media in the West, failed to frame the Middle East conflict correctly, overlooking the inequality between the two sides and the fact that the state of Israel has significantly more power than the Palestinian people, who are scattered across multiple parcels of land.
While justly condemning the attack by Hamas, it is wrongful to present the sitiation as a war between two nations, he asserts. Quoting UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “it is important to … recognise the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum”. The Israelis dominate while the Palestians are dominated. International Law regulates the behaviour of an occupying party, but Israel has for decades acted in violation of international law on a daily basis: from the destruction of Palestinian land and property, to evictions in the West Bank, to the destruction of EU-funded schools.
Undoubtedly, we’re not comparing like with like, Karl remarks. Israel controls every aspect of Palestinian peopls’s lives. However, our shared humanity shouldn’t be about comparing suffering, but recognising it on every side and taking political action to end it.
Could Hamas’ elimination be part of the solution?
If, as it claims, Israel is acting so fiercely due to its insecurity about having an ISIS-style administration next door, could’t the elimination of Hamas, ironically, be a stepping stone making the establishment of an independent Palestinian state finally more feasible?
Karl is convinced that shelling and bombing can bring about a lot of destruction and death, but it cannot get rid of all “terrorist” elements because the root cause would still be there. The only path towards a Gaza free of “terrorist” elements is the one paved by justice, where Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine is stopped. Otherwise, one Hamas is wiped out and another will eventually develop in its stead. The biggest disservice Israeli leaders could do to the Israeli people is presenting calm as peace, giving the impression that Hamas has been overcome and that everything is now under control. Everything will, in actual fact, continue to simmer beneath the surface while Palestinians continue to be brutalised as TV cameras focus elsewhere, until the pressure cooker explodes again.
He then asks a very pertiment question: “If Hamas is the obstacle, then why does Israel keep oppressing over 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Hamas has no control whatsoever? Why do they humiliate school children in Hebron, ordering them to empty their school bags at military checkpoints on the way to school? Why do they stop ambulances from reaching Palestinians attacked by Israeli settlers in the West Bank and let them die on the streets? Why do they uproot olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers? Why don’t they allow Palestinian people to develop their properties, to build an additional floor on their houses once their chldren get married and need extra space? Why are Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem not allowed to have their freedom within an independent state? Hamas does not rule there. It’s the weak Palestinian Authority which is at the helm, and it has not been accused of having dug underground tunnels or fired rockets at Israelis. There are no human shields and no hostages taken in the West Bank. Rather, the PA collaborates with the occupier when the latter decides to make incursions into Palestinian territory – certainly not an ISIS-style government that Israel should fear. All this is evidence that brutality against Palestinian civilians is an Israeli policy.
Is the two-State solution dead?
At the end of the day, given how “facts on the ground” have changed over the past decades, is it still really feasible to have an equitable two-State solution, where Israel and Palestine can co-exist side by side, in peace and security?
Karl Schmebri argues that, if the two-State solution is losing steam, it is the polticians – including European ones – who are to blame for allowing the wound to fester to this extent. The onus, therefore, lies on them to find a way forward towards an equitable solution. He criticises the EU for limiting itself to verbal condemnations whenever, in violation of international law, Israel damages or destroys Palestinian schools, hospitals, and other projects funded through the European taxpayers’ money, but never follow up with sanctions or other actions. The same has happens whenever Israel continues to build new Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, changing the “facts on the ground”.
Still, despite all the hatred and the violence, Karl remains optimistic that a solution could be found if both sides are willing and their allies act in good faith. He points out that, fortunately, history has shown that two sides who were once enemies managed to sit down together and chart a peaceful way forward. He mentioned the situation in Northern Ireland as a clear example.
“Things will only be solved when Palestinians get what they have been asking for: their freedom and self-determination. The rest can be worked out,” says Karl. “Until that happens, it will never been business as usual, as it has never been business as usual since at least 1948.”
One can only hope that the tumultuous events of 7th October and the current world attention will finally lead to a long-lasting solution to this long conflict that has caused so much suffering to so many people.
Main photo: Bea Bar Kallos/europa.eu, Daily Sabah