Greece Slams Occupation, Decries Suicide Bombings

By George Gilson, Athens News
Reprinted By Permission

GREECE was quick to react sharply to the Israeli invasion of Ramallah and the Palestinian Territories, as Prime Minister Costas Simitis called for Israel to heed the United Nations Security Council's request to evacuate Ramallah and quickly rejected Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon's move to brand Yasser Arafat as a terrorist. Simitis and Foreign Minister George Papandreou, along with other EU leaders, hastened to embrace Arafat as the legitimate president of the Palestinians. But Athens also condemned in the clearest terms the Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

"The Israeli government could, in an important step towards a peaceful resolution of the problem, order a truce," Simitis said on April 4. "At the same time, the Greek government, and I personally, condemn in the most categorical way the terrorist acts against innocent Israeli citizens."

Parliament speaker Apostolos Kaklamanis went as far as to describe the Israeli move to reoccupy the West Bank and completely isolate Arafat as "genocide". "The entire Greek people, parliament, government and political parties condemn the genocide that is being carried out today in Palestine," he said on March 31. The Greek ambassador to Tel Aviv later rejected an Israeli foreign ministry demarche, while Greek government spokesman Christos Protopappas on April 2 said Kaklamanis' remarks expressed the feelings of the Greek parliament and the Greek people.

Sharon has said the West Bank occupation is intended to root out the source of a string of Palestinian suicide bombings that has claimed dozens of lives recently.

Simitis also spoke to Spanish Premier Jose Maria Aznar, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency until June, in a bid to forge an EU initiative to end the cycle of violence. A delegation of Greek diplomats is poised to travel to a series of Arab countries, as well as Iran and Israel, in a bid to jumpstart the peace process. Greece also supported Germany's call for an emergency foreign ministers' meeting that decided on April 3 to try and arrange a mission to the Middle East by Aznar and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who was the first European Union official to travel to the region since the violence escalated, briefed his European counterparts on the results of his April 2 trip to Cairo at the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg the next day. Palestinian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Nabil Shaa'th raised with Papandreou the prospect of the European Union imposing financial sanctions against Israel, including freezing an EU-Israel association agreement. Papandreou also met with Arab League President Abu Moussa and his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmet Maher. The Greek foreign ministry said that an announced meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was cancelled because Mubarak was not in Cairo.

"Sha'ath briefed Mr Papandreou on the ongoing developments and they discussed several options which the European Union can take as an initiative. Papandreou is the only foreign minister who has been in the region for some time, so he got the most direct information," Palestinian Ambassador to Athens Abdallah Abdallah told the Athens News. During his meeting with Sha'ath, Papandreou spoke by phone to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who noted that he was able to make little headway in more than a dozen contacts with the Israeli government.

Palestinian envoy seeks financial sanctions

Abdallah expressed support for the prospect of the EU enforcing immediate economic sanctions on Israel, as it did during the first Intifada in the 1980s, and freezing its partnership agreement with Israel. "The political side of the crisis involves the Israeli government's determination to destroy the peace process through the destruction of the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian National Authority. The other side is the humanitarian aspect. Israel is violating every single principle and convention regarding human rights. Israel should be held responsible for that. There is leverage that Europe and the rest of the world can use," he said. "In 1988, during the first Intifada, the EU used such a tactic. They refused to ratify some scientific and economic agreements between Israel and the EU unless Israel opened the Palestinian universities that were shut down. It should work, otherwise they have other means to raise the ceiling of their pressure."

But German Ambassador to Athens Karl-Heinz Kuhna indicated that Berlin, like other EU governments, does not now favour either economic sanctions on Israel or the installation of international peacekeepers in the region, which he said could aggravate the situation. Kuhna admitted that the EU's leverage is limited. "I think the EU does not have many options at present. What we can do is to use our diplomatic means and urge both sides to exercise moderation and return to the conference table immediately, because everybody sees the risk of an enlargement of this conflict which we have to avoid at all costs," he told the Athens News on April 4.

Commission President Romano Prodi also ruled out the possibility of the EU, Israel's largest trading partner, freezing the association agreement with Israel.

The Palestinian envoy warned of the direct negative impact on Europe in case of a further escalation of violence in the region. "Everybody knows that the United States is giving political cover, if not more, to the Israelis. No one should succumb to the American hegemony in this respect, given that instability in the Middle East affects Europe directly, aside from the moral responsibility. The idea that Mr Papandreou carried with him to the foreign ministers' meeting - to send a high-level delegation to travel to the area and meet with President Arafat in a show of solidarity and meet with the Israeli side as well so as to lift the siege against the Palestinians - was echoed by French President Chirac. They would try both to get Sharon to withdraw and to enter meaningful negotiations," Abdallah said.

The Athens News was unable to contact Israeli Ambassador David Sasson, as the embassy did not return a message and lines were later flooded with calls.

Meanwhile, several hundreds demonstrators held a number of protest marches on the Israeli Embassy in Athens. Greek foreign ministry spokesman Panos Beglitis said on April 1 that Papandreou cancelled a scheduled visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories after the Israeli government said that it could not guarantee his safety in the Palestinian territories.

New Democracy, the Left Coalition and the Greek Communist Party (KKE) all expressed grave concern over the escalation of violence and the possibility of a broader regional conflagration, while KKE leader Aleka Papariga was among the protest marchers.

Athens University political science professor Theodore Couloumbis, the director of the Hellenic Foundation for Foreign Affairs and Defence, told the Athens News that continued violence in Palestine could lead to the targeting of Western interests in countries like Greece.