Against the backdrop of a brittle Gaza Strip ceasefire, the EU opened two days of talks with Israel and its Arab neighbors yesterday to preserve what remains of the Middle East peace process and push ahead with broad economic assistance to boost chances for peace.
The meeting caps a disastrous year marked by nine chaotic months of a Hamas-led Palestinian government that does not recognize Israel and an August war between Israel and Hezbollah militants based in southern Lebanon.
Given the bleak situation in the Middle East, diplomats said the gathering of foreign ministers may not produce a joint statement, leaving it to the meeting's chairman, Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister, to sum up his impressions afterward.
Finland, which holds the EU presidency, has pushed hard for a declaration "but it has been impossible to agree on common language," said an Israeli diplomat, who asked not to be identified because the issue is politically very sensitive.
Disagreements exist notably over how to achieve security for Israel and the Palestinians and get both sides back to the negotiating table.
On Sunday, Israeli troops withdrew from the Gaza Strip under a cease-fire deal, but two major Palestinian militant groups continued to fire homemade rockets into Israel. The attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad tempered hopes for a lasting truce to end five months of deadly clashes.
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said that he hoped the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians will continue to hold.
"This opens the opportunity to find a solution to the Palestinian problem [which] is the central issue in the Middle East," he said.
Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal said his group was willing to give peace talks six months, but threatened a new uprising if the talks do not lead to a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.
Complicating the formation of a national unity government -- that would see direct aid to Palestinians restored by international donors -- is Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and honor existing peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The violence and suffering ... in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and northern Israel in the summer of 2006 have underlined the importance of reinvigorating the peace process," the European Commission said in a report to foreign ministers.
The EU's Euro-Mediterranean aid program aims to shore up peace efforts by bringing together the 25 EU nations with Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Tunisia into a partnership meant to lead to a free trade zone.
To make that possible, the EU has since 1995 funneled 21 billion euros (US$27.5 billion) in grants, aid and soft loans -- mostly to Arab nations.
The EU's main goal is to engage countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean in a "zone of peace, security and prosperity" by extending cooperation in areas including energy, tourism, environmental protection, education, law enforcement, migration, trade promotion and investments.
This has produced mixed results.
There is no peace and it is debatable if the EU has raised its standing in a region where the US remains the key to the peace process.
At a summit in Barcelona a year ago, held to mark the 10th anniversary of the EU's economic assistance for Israel and its neighbors, only one Arab head of state showed up.
At Barcelona, the EU failed to get its southern neighbors to jointly agree on a definition of terrorism.
A decade after the EU launched its Euro-Mediterranean partnership, "economic modernization and growth has most definitely not taken off in the Arab countries, European investment in the region remains at a depressingly low level and migration is a more divisive issue than ever," said Richard Youngs, of the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE.
"The cultural divide between Europe and the Middle East has widened, not narrowed. European intolerance has deepened and Arab anger against the West appears to have intensified," he said.
Vietnam has lodged an official protest with China following the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat that it said had been rammed by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel near islands in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese fishing vessel, with eight fishermen onboard, was fishing near the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) on Thursday when it was rammed and sunk by the Chinese vessel, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement posted on a government Web site yesterday. All of the fishermen were picked up by the Chinese vessel alive and were transferred to two other Vietnamese fishing vessels
Reporters Without Borders has accused the Algerian government of taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to “settle scores” with independent journalists, including those covering long-running anti-government protests. In a statement signed with Algerian non-governmental organizations, the watchdog on Thursday called for the immediate release of its correspondent, Khaled Drareni, who has been in pretrial detention since Sunday after being charged with inciting an unarmed gathering and endangering national unity. Drareni has been arrested several times for covering the “Hirak” anti-government protests held in the capital, Algiers, every Friday since February last year. Imprisoning people during a pandemic is “an act of physical endangerment,”
DIVIDED YOUTH: There is a belief that overseas students see themselves as superior, which is compounded by perceptions of their extreme wealth and multiple nationalities Chinese students flying home from overseas to escape the COVID-19 pandemic face a frosty reception from sections of the public who view them as wealthy, spoiled — and potentially contaminated. The number of officially reported cases in China has dwindled dramatically over the last month, but the country is now taking drastic steps to try and stem a second wave of infections brought in from abroad. With most international flights canceled and nearly all foreigners barred from entering the country, the vast majority of returnees are Chinese nationals, including many students. The situation has exposed animosities over class and privilege in Chinese society,
The dramatic quietening of towns and cities during lockdown in Britain has changed the way the Earth moves beneath our feet, scientists said. Seismologists at the British Geological Survey (BGS) have found that their sensors are twitching less now that human activity has been curtailed, leading to a drop in the anthropogenic din that vibrates through the planet. The fall in the human hum that rings around the world means that, in theory at least, the scientists should be able to detect smaller earthquakes in the UK, and more distant tremors in Europe and in countries further afield than their equipment usually