EU leaders meeting in Brussels for a second day today approved a statement calling on Israel to respect the terms of the "road map" for peace in the Middle East. The statement condemns the killing of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin earlier this week and says Israel's withdrawal from Gaza must proceed in close consultation with the Palestinian Authority.
Brussels, 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders at the European Union summit today in Brussels issued their first-ever direct appeal to both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to show the will necessary to overcome the conflict.
The EU declaration underlines the priority the bloc gives to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also reflects the important role that resolving the conflict plays in the EU's plans for the Wider Middle East and the southern Mediterranean countries.
EU leaders condemned the killing earlier this week of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin by Israeli forces. They say the killing was contrary to international law and warn that the present "cycle of retaliatory violence" is taking both parties further away from a settlement.
"The assassination of Sheikh Yassin deeply shocked the European Union -- firstly because it's illegal but also because we fear that it could lead to further violence," said Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for the European Commission. "It has inflamed the situation and makes it even harder to get the two parties back around a table. Having said that, we don't see any alternatives to the elements contained in the road map. They weren't new ideas. They're a summary of the wisdom that's been gathered over a long period on this subject, and in the end, if there's to be peace between Israel and Palestine, it will have to come through negotiation, through agreement between both sides and through the elements laid out in the road map," Udwin said.
The declaration also condemns Palestinian attacks on Israel and calls on the Palestinian Authority to address the issue of security and to combat terrorism.
It goes on to ask Israel to alleviate the humanitarian situation in the occupied territories by lifting prohibitions on movement, and to discontinue its settlement policy and to dismantle all settlements built after March 2001.
EU heads of state and government reconfirmed their commitment to the "road map" to peace endorsed by the so-called "Quartet," comprising the EU, the United States, the United Nations, and Russia.
"We know the circumstances are different" after the killing of Yassin, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said today. "We know the events that have happened make it more difficult, but we continue to be positive and constructive and do all we can to play a key part" in the Middle East peace process.
The declaration also explicitly warns Israel that the EU will not recognize "any change" to the borders of 1967 prior to the Six-Day War.
The EU today also spelled out a number of conditions Israel must meet when it carries out its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The statement says there must be an organized and negotiated handover of power to the Palestinian Authority. Other conditions say that the withdrawal must be a step toward a two-state solution, the dismantled settlements must not be transferred to the West Bank, and that Israel must help reconstruct Gaza.
The EU also offers to assist the Palestinian Authority in taking responsibility for law and order in Gaza. In particular, the bloc is keen to support building up the Palestinian police force and other law enforcement capacities.
Also at the summit, the EU heads of state and government discussed a wider strategy to promote reform and democracy in the Wider Middle East and the southern Mediterranean.
Udwin said Yassin's killing could potentially be a very damaging development for both EU and U.S. plans for the region.
"Europe was already working on a strategy on what we call the Wider Middle East, just before the Americans also got interested in this idea," Udwin said. "It is important that the international community thinks about how it can bring more democracy and prosperity -- and, of course, that will mean greater access to education -- to the whole region." However, Udwin added, "we're not likely to make much headway in that if we can't make progress in the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It's just too big an issue in the region. So the two things are interlinked, and we hope very much that the assassination of Sheikh Yassin does not hold back those initiatives."
The EU strategy says peace in the Middle East and the active participation of governments in the region are essential, and officials fear the killing has reduced the prospects for both.