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Departing EU envoy: I won’t accuse Israel of apartheid, but it’s worthy of discussion

The European Union’s Ambassador to the Palestinians Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff soared off into retirement in style, conducting what he said was the first-ever paraglide over the Gaza Strip last month.

“Once you have a free Palestine, a free Gaza, you can do exactly the same thing, and that’s the reason why I did this — to show you the way forward if you work for it,” said Kühn von Burgsdorff, who formally concluded three decades as a European diplomat on Tuesday.

His stunt struck a nerve in Israel, though, whose Foreign Ministry branded it a “provocative action.”

“The European diplomat forgot a long time ago that he represents the EU and its member states,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesperson. “He continues to represent the Palestinian narrative and to serve as a propaganda tool for terror organizations controlling Gaza.”

As the statement hinted, Israel sparred with Kühn von Burgsdorff throughout his three-and-a-half-year tenure leading the EU mission in East Jerusalem, as the 65-year-old German-born diplomat regularly used his platform to highlight the Palestinian plight.

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He has gone further in his criticism of Israel than just about any Western representative, including accusing the IDF last month of using disproportionate force against Palestinians during a counter-terror raid in the Jenin refugee camp. At a May event hosted by his mission to mark Europe Day, he told the hundreds in attendance that “growing concern about what more and more people around the world see as the crime of apartheid will keep the unresolved Palestinian cause on the international agenda.”

Sven Kühn Von Burgsdorff (C), head of the EU mission in the West Bank and Gaza, waves the Palestinian flag off the shore of Gaza City, during a beach cleaning campaign organized by the mission, on September 14, 2022. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Kühn von Burgsdorff avoided saying whether he thinks the politically charged term accurately describes the reality in the West Bank, but in a wide-ranging interview with The Times of Israel, he did insist that “one should not suppress the discussion of whether what we’re seeing on the ground constitutes the crime of apartheid.”

Nor did the EU ambassador shy away from repeatedly calling out the Palestinian Authority either, and when its president, Mahmoud Abbas, took steps to shrink the space of his political opponents, civil society groups and journalists, Kühn von Burgsdorff was among the first to speak out and even pay solidarity visits to those targeted by the PA.

In last week’s interview, Kühn von Burgsdorff expressed particular disappointment over Abbas’s refusal to hold presidential elections since he was elected to a four-year term in 2005. The PA president has declined to move forward without an expressed Israeli commitment to allow balloting in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, but the EU envoy dismissed Ramallah’s justification as insufficient and presented a path for Ramallah to move ahead with a vote in order “to regain [its] democratic legitimacy.”

‘Mission far from accomplished’

The veteran diplomat’s candor was manifest during his stint in East Jerusalem, where he served as the Western world’s de facto top representative to the Palestinians following the severing of US-Palestinian ties that took place during Donald Trump’s presidency. US President Joe Biden moved to restore relations with the PA, but his failure to follow through on several campaign promises to roll back measures taken by his predecessor has left Ramallah utterly disillusioned by Washington.

Kühn von Burgsdorff sought to fill that vacuum, meeting regularly with Palestinian leaders, holding weekly calls with PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, and leading delegations of dozens of diplomats on tours to various flashpoints in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. US officials often tagged along, but the spotlight was reserved for Kühn von Burgsdorff, who used it to repeatedly implore Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take steps toward reconciliation.

But as he acknowledged during his Europe Day address, the EU ambassador is leaving his post “with a sense of mission far from accomplished.”

“Over the period of my assignment, I could see a deterioration in all statistical databases — whether it be settlement expansion, settler violence, demolitions, evictions or the excessive use of lethal force against civilians and other Palestinians,” Kühn von Burgsdorff said in the interview. “On all accounts, we saw a steep rise and continued violations of Palestinian rights.”

“We also saw a steep rise in victims on the Israeli side because of violence perpetrated by Palestinians — very often in direct revenge because of the aforementioned factors. This spill of violence is being exacerbated by this combination of factors,” he added.

Israeli armored vehicles are seen during a military raid in the Askar refugee camp east of Nablus in the West Bank, July 24, 2023. (Zain JAAFAR / AFP)

For its part, Israel has justified its intensified military operations in the West Bank, where 162 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the year — most of them during clashes with security forces or while carrying out attacks, but some of them uninvolved civilians and others under unclear circumstances — pointing to an uptick in deadly Palestinian terror attacks targeting Israelis that began last year and has left 25 dead so far in 2023. Jerusalem argues that the PA’s failure to crack down on terror groups has left the IDF with no choice but to operate on its own deep in Palestinian cities, where casualties are more likely.

Pointing to “exponential” Palestinian population growth alongside record-setting Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, Kühn von Burgsdorff argued that “more and more [Palestinian] people on less and less land with fewer and fewer resources… is a recipe for disaster.”

The ambassador in his Europe Day speech made a point of highlighting the growing number of voices around the world characterizing the situation in the West Bank as apartheid, but he was careful not to count himself among them.

“I have my personal view on that matter, but I’m still a diplomat until the 31st of July and have to represent my headquarters on that matter. However, I would certainly be on the right side of history if I were to say that one should not suppress the discussion of whether actually what we’re seeing on the ground constitutes or doesn’t constitute the crime of apartheid.”

Nonetheless, Kühn von Burgsdorff insisted that this was a question for international courts, not politicians, to decide.

A spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined a request to respond.

EU representative in the Palestinian territories Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff (C) attempts to give a statement to the press as Israeli protesters shout slogans and wave Israeli flags at the site of the planned extension of the Givat Hamatos Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem on November 16, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Dawn of a post-two-state era?

Still, the EU diplomat explained that “negative factors” unfolding on the ground nonetheless give him reason for optimism because they leave the parties with what he sees as no other option but “peaceful coexistence.”

“I don’t think that three generations from now, your great-grandchildren will still serve at military posts checking whether a Palestinian has dual-use equipment with him or not. I hope there will not be much suffering and violence on the way to a solution, and I can’t tell you how long it will take, but there will be a solution,” Kühn von Burgsdorff predicted.

As for the framework for that solution, the EU envoy argued that it will be up to the parties to decide whether they want to live “together with equal rights for all or side by side” in separate states.

During his Europe Day remarks, he notably avoided mentioning the two-state solution, which is the official policy preference in Brussels. Asked whether this was intentional, Kühn von Burgsdorff admitted that it was, given the current conditions on the ground.

‘Reality checks’

While he was unable to influence some of the conflict’s more protracted elements, the EU ambassador asserted that he did make a difference in how they’re understood by European capitals.

“I contributed to making it better understood… what is happening here and how disastrous the Israeli policies — especially of this government — are for Israel’s own interest as well as the Palestinian interest,” Kühn von Burgsdorff said. “The more people understand this, the more politicians in Europe and abroad want to become engaged.”

He highlighted his decision to characterize the recent rampages by Israelis through the Palestinian towns of Huwara and Turmus Ayya as “settler terrorism” during remarks to the media while leading an EU delegation visit to the latter West Bank town.

Kühn von Burgsdorff surmised that this was the first time a Western diplomat had used such harsh rhetoric to describe what long has been referred to as settler violence and noted that the term was echoed in a subsequent statement by EU foreign policy czar Josep Borrell, indicating that he had sparked a broader policy shift.

This was one of the handful of “reality checks” Kühn von Burgsdorff said he was moved to issue, “explaining to European capitals that just making statements which are not followed by action undermines our credibility and makes us an easy target for those who are accusing us of using double standards.”

Pressed to point to EU actions he helped spur regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ambassador explained that such steps take time because they require support from all 27 countries in the bloc.

Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, head of the European Union’s mission to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, reacts as he stands inside a destroyed building during a visit with a diplomatic delegation to the village of Turmus Ayya near the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 23, 2023, in the aftermath of an attack there by Israeli settlers. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Using the same yardstick to judge the PA

While most of Kühn von Burgsdorff’s concerns were with Israel, it was Palestinian leaders whom he had an easier time influencing, given his purview.

Regarding Ramallah’s crackdown on journalists, human rights groups and protesters amid longstanding allegations of corruption, the EU ambassador to the Palestinians said he had maintained an “active dialogue” with the highest levels of the PA on those issues.

He argued that overarching Israeli control of the West Bank and the rise of rival Palestinian factions have undermined the PA’s credibility, leading it to “rally around what you have as your power base.”

“This is unfortunate because instead of opening up society and becoming more inclusive, participatory and democratic, the opposite takes place. We are concerned about that, and we voice our concern very clearly to the politicians at all levels in Palestine,” Kühn von Burgsdorff said.

Angry demonstrators carry pictures of Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority, and chant anti-PA slogans during a rally protesting his death, allegedly at the hands of PA security personnel, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 24, 2021. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

When well-known activist and Abbas critic Nizar Banat was killed while in PA police custody in 2021, Kühn von Burgsdorff led a delegation of European envoys who visited the victim’s family and called for an independent probe into the death.

Asked whether his criticism of the PA had made it more difficult for him to continue engaging with the leadership in Ramallah, the European diplomat pointed to the Star of Jerusalem award he received a week earlier from Abbas, which is the highest decoration a foreign envoy can receive.

“I assume they saw me as principled when it comes to the occupation and criticizing Israel. They saw me as upholding international law and basic human rights [in those cases], and they accepted that I used the same yardstick for them, as I did with the Nizar Binat case… This was not okay, putting journalists behind bars is not okay, shrinking the space for civil society is not okay,” Kühn von Burgsdorff said.

Putting partisan interest before public good

What arguably was Kühn von Burgsdorff’s biggest project as EU ambassador to the Palestinians was pushing Abbas to hold elections.

“It’s in the very interest of President Abbas to ensure a managed transition and managed succession. He’s 88 years old, and it’s absolutely necessary for any Palestinian leader to regain democratic legitimacy,” the envoy declared. “The last presidential elections took place 18 years ago. That doesn’t bode well for [Abbas being able to say that he is] the true representative of the Palestinian people, since 55 percent of Palestinians have never voted in a national election.”

Kühn von Burgsdorff expressed hope that meetings between Palestinian faction leaders on Sunday in Cairo would lead to an interim unity government better positioned to then hold national elections, but reports from the Egypt-hosted gathering indicated that little progress had been made.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas (left), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh meeting in Ankara, July 26, 2023. (Turkish Presidency)

“You have this existential threat coming from the Israeli government… [so] one would think that Palestinians would rally around the flag and say: ‘Let’s forget our differences, let’s create Palestinian as the main political objective’… but that hasn’t taken place yet. Both Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah [party] seem to believe that they can still ride this out, putting their narrow partisan interest before the public good,” the EU ambassador said.

Recalling his conversations with Abbas on the issue, Kühn von Burgsdorff said he had told the PA leader: “It’s in your own interest, Mr. President, to be seen as the father of Palestinian democracy… But to be the father of democracy means also… [facing] an electoral contest.”

The EU envoy lamented that Abbas never offered a response.

Mailing in an election

Abbas has long maintained that he will not hold elections without Palestinians in East Jerusalem being allowed to participate, and he cited Israel’s refusal to sign off on this when he announced an indefinite postponement of elections in November 2021. Israel has yet to comment publicly on the matter, though it has long taken steps to prevent PA activity in East Jerusalem, which it considers part of its sovereign capital

At the same time, Israel allowed Palestinian elections to take place in East Jerusalem in 1996, 2005 and 2006.

Analysts have maintained Abbas’s November 2021 decision had less to do with Israel, and more to do with fears that rival factions such as Hamas would make considerable gains if a vote were held.

Kühn von Burgsdorff argued that the way to get around any potential Israeli opposition to holding a formal election in East Jerusalem would be to allow the city’s 350,000 Palestinian residents to vote by mail, which would be in full compliance with the Oslo Accords.

In this October 20, 2012, photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

While campaigning would indeed be more complicated, Kühn von Burgsdorff suggested that candidates rely on social media to connect to voters in East Jerusalem, as they are already doing.

He agreed that Israel would likely never formally commit to allowing Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem but also dismissed the notion that Israel would be able to bar Palestinians from participating by mail, as that would require monitoring post offices throughout the city for the entire balloting period.

“My argument to President Abbas is and remains: ‘How come you are giving Israel veto power over whether you can hold your right to political self-determination wherever and whenever you want?'”

“The Palestinian leadership reluctantly accepts that the Oslo agreements are violated [by Israel]. The PA objects to these violations, but it doesn’t go as far as canceling the accords altogether,” Kühn von Burgsdorff continued.

“But on this one issue where the Palestinians actually have the ability to exercise leverage, they become principled and decide to cancel national elections? This doesn’t make sense, and it is counter-productive.”