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Europe Threatens
Israel With Sanctions

By Phil Reeves, Justin Huggler, and Paul Waugh
The Independent - London
8 April 2002

The European Union is preparing billion-dollar sanctions against Israel if Ariel Sharon continues to defy international opinion and reject calls for an end to his invasion of the Palestinian territories.

European governments appear prepared to turn to economic weapons after the Israeli Prime Minister defied President Bush's call at the weekend for a withdrawal "without delay". Mr Sharon pledged only that the offensive would be accelerated, not ended.

Josep Pique, the Spanish Foreign Minister, revealed yesterday that European foreign ministers had discussed sanctions at emergency talks in Luxembourg last week and would discuss punitive measures at their next meeting.

"It is a possible scenario ... Some countries are in favour of introducing sanctions very, very soon; others are more reluctant. So we have to discuss it," Mr Pique said.

Louis Michel, the Belgian Foreign Minister, said the EU might rethink trade ties with Israel. The EU has donated millions of pounds of aid to the Palestinian Authority only to see infrastructure, such as the new airstrip in Gaza, destroyed by Israeli troops.

Europe is one of Israel's biggest trading partners and sanctions such as suspending a long-standing "association agreement" and the trade concessions it gives Israel would be a blow to relations with Brussels.

The EU threat came as Israel faced demands from international aid and human rights organisations to stop the military offensive, amid warnings that a humanitarian crisis was in the making.

Peter Hansen of Unwra, the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees, said his organisation was receiving reports of "pure horror" from refugee camps in Jenin and Balata in Nablus, which have been invaded by Israeli troops for the second time in a month. Mr Hansen said Israeli combat helicopters had been strafing residential areas.

The scale of the killing was unclear yesterday as fighting raged in Nablus and Jenin, not least because Israel has barred the media from the areas invaded by its forces, where more than 1.5 million people are confined to their homes by an army curfew.

Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, the Chief of Staff of the Israeli armed forces, told a cabinet meeting that 200 Palestinians and 11 Israeli soldiers had been killed since the military operation began 11 days ago, in the name of rooting out Palestinian militants.

The army claimed that the bulk of the Palestinian dead were armed fighters but there are countless reports of civilian victims. An estimated 1,500 Palestinians and 143 Israeli soldiers have been injured.

In Texas, after a weekend summit with President Bush, Tony Blair said Britain and its European partners were prepared to send peace monitors to help to kickstart the political process an idea Israel has in the past rejected.

Mr Bush telephoned Mr Sharon at the weekend for the first time since February and called for a withdrawal "without delay". Significantly, however, the American President did not demand a timetable for an Israeli pullback.

Colin Powell, his Secretary of State, embarks on a high-profile diplomatic mission to the Middle East today but appeared to allow Mr Sharon some leeway by timing his arrival in Jerusalem for Thursday at the earliest, possibly to coincide with an Israeli withdrawal. Asked whether Mr Bush had given Mr Sharon a deadline, General Powell said: "The President doesn't give orders to the sovereign prime minister of another country."

Mr Blair also announced that the diplomatic offensive would include a scheme to endorse in a new UN resolution on the Middle East the peace plan put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The Prime Minister said a ceasefire had to be agreed immediately. "In monitoring any such ceasefire and in ensuring the Palestinian Authority genuinely take action against the terrorists, we and others stand ready to help in any way we can," he said.

With Spain holding the presidency of the EU, Mr Pique is one of its most senior foreign policy spokesman and he made clear that sanctions had already been discussed in private by the 15 nation states.

"We discussed the possibility [of sanctions] at the last general council in Luxembourg," he said. "It's a possible scenario."

Mr Sharon showed no sign yesterday of heeding warnings that the massive offensive by his armed forces is simply laying the ground for more Palestinian violence and suicide attacks.

The point was underscored by a warning from Hamas - responsible for many of the suicide attacks - vowing to avenge the recent assassination of several of its leaders with a response of "a new type and new colour never seen before".