Tue 19 Sep 2023 3:39 pm - Jerusalem Time
Besieged Gaza in the eyes of the European Union Ambassador!
In the last quarter of last July, German diplomat Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorf appeared in a sports uniform, flying for a few minutes in the Gaza sky in a parachute, demanding “freedom for the Strip” and drawing attention to the Israeli restrictions imposed on it. For a few moments, the ambassador began rowing in the Gaza Sea in a light sports boat. , before joining a group of young men to play beach soccer.
As soon as Burgsdorf returned to the West Bank, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was waiting for him to award him the Jerusalem Medal, the highest Palestinian honor, to praise what he had provided to Palestine during his period of service.
“Exceptional diplomat” is one of the Palestinian elites’ repeated descriptions of Svin, but in the Israeli government, the feeling is the complete opposite. The ambassador was the target of violent and repeated waves of criticism, the last of which was because he brought that light parachute plane into Gaza and flew in its skies without permission from the Israeli authorities. .
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the move as a “provocative act” and condemned the ambassador in harsh terms in a statement in which it said, “The European diplomat has long forgotten that he represents the European Union and its member states. He continues to represent the Palestinian narrative and is a propaganda tool in the hands of the terrorist organizations that control Gaza.” .
Blinks interviewed Ambassador Sven Kuhn during the last week of July to get behind the scenes of that incident and talk about his personal experience in the Palestinian territories and what he saw during his period of service.
Exceptional activity in the field
When the Israeli army stormed the Jenin camp in July, Sven was the first diplomat to arrive in the area to condemn the violence, and when settlers tried to expel the Sab al-Laban family from their home in Jerusalem, the ambassador rushed to visit them and reiterate his rejection of these Israeli policies.
After the settlers burned the village of Turmus Ayya in June, Burgsdorf went to the area, accompanied by 20 other ambassadors, to offer condolences and denounce the violence of the settlers, and he did the same after the settlers burned the village of Huwwara last February.
Every time the Israeli authorities seek to demolish homes and displace Palestinians, they find the European ambassador with those families, whether in Sheikh Jarrah, Masafer Yatta, Khan al-Ahmar, Silwan, Batn al-Hawa, and other villages.
Once, the Israeli army declared the home of the famous Palestinian activist, Issa Amr, a closed military zone. The European ambassador had no choice but to go to Issa’s house with other ambassadors and express support for his human rights activities.
Such field activities gained Sven popularity among Palestinian political and human rights elites, but at the same time exposed him to waves of major Israeli government criticism and discontent, and high pressure from European Union officials in Brussels to reduce his visibility, according to four diplomatic sources who spoke to Blinks separately.
But the European ambassador does not see anything exceptional in the matter. He says, “It was not brave of me to do that. I was carrying out my mission.” He adds in the interview, “I see that diplomacy in the twenty-first century should not be limited to conversations by the fireplace between one or two ministers.” "From a senior diplomat with a cigar and a glass of whisky, you should care about winning people's hearts and minds, as long as you represent your country on a basis that is consistent with international law and international human rights standards."
Fear prevents diplomats from speaking
Sven does not hide that what prevents his Western diplomatic peers from speaking out boldly or publicly objecting to Israeli policies is fear of the consequences for their professional future.
“The political cost of speaking out against Israel's practices is very high,” Burgsdorf told Blinks of one of his fellow diplomats, without naming him, “but the benefit of ignoring is great. Even on a professional level, no one criticizes you in that case.” The result, the European ambassador adds, is "you keep your mouth shut, but at the same time, you violate the policy you are sent to represent."
The famous American writer Thomas Friedman once admitted that “if a diplomat wanted to become an ambassador, he would not state publicly that Israeli settlements stand in the way of peace, even though this is actual American policy.”
The consequences of criticizing Israel publicly in Western countries are great for those who dream of diplomatic jobs or high-ranking positions in the state, especially in the United States or Germany. Last January, the US Congress suspended President Joe Biden's nominee for human rights ambassador because of her criticism of Israeli settlements.
As for Sven, it seems that he is not afraid of the consequences of what he says, and perhaps one of the reasons that helps him do so is that he is close to retiring from his diplomatic career, which lasted for about thirty years during which he moved between Cuba, Mozambique, South Sudan, Haiti, America, Belgium, and Slovakia.
Israel and pressure policy
Last year, a wave of anger exploded against a European Union representative after he stated that Israeli policies were pushing some Palestinians to use violence against Israel, which was seen as a “justification for terrorism.”
In his conversation with us, the European Ambassador explains that there is a difference between justification and explanation: “There is absolutely no justification for any attack against innocent people.”
Burgsdorf holds a doctorate in political science and international law from the University of Freiburg in Germany, then obtained a graduate degree in development studies from the German Development Institute, DIE in Berlin, and aspires to return to university teaching after retiring from his diplomatic career. So he sometimes presents himself as a political science expert.
“When the Israelis destroy the house you've lived in all your life, because your cousin is a suspected terrorist who lives there, so I wouldn't be surprised by any reaction,” the ambassador explains.
“The definition of terrorist acts under Israeli law is vague and broad, and does not correspond to the way we see terrorism in the European Union,” he explains. “In Israel, any child who throws a stone can be sentenced to years in prison.”
“Unless this changes, and the policy of settlement expansion, settler violence, excessive use of force, and home demolitions stops, retaliatory attacks and further extremism on the Palestinian side will increase,” Sven adds.
Difficult and painful situations
At the funeral of journalist Sherine Abu Aqla, the European ambassador stood to mediate between the Palestinian masses who wanted to carry the coffin from the church to Mount Zion in East Jerusalem, and the Israeli police who insisted on transporting the body silently in a car to the cemetery to avoid the gathering of Palestinians.
It ended with the Israeli police attacking the Palestinian crowd with batons, until the coffin was about to fall and be destroyed. This was one of the situations that affected Sven Kuhn deeply. “I was there, and it made me sad, amazed and frustrated,” he recalls.
He sums up the most difficult situations he went through in his service by saying, “When I offer my condolences to parents who lost their sons or daughters, it is heartbreaking for me to go there.”
“I was very moved when I went to Nizar Banat’s family after he was killed by Palestinian Authority security personnel, and I was holding his three-month-old baby in my arms,” Burgsdorf explains. “Yes, these things stay with you.”
The Israeli government is keen that Western diplomats do not have to experience the daily lives of Palestinians and treats them with favour. For example, the European Union ambassador, who lives in East Jerusalem, passes to Ramallah through the “pocket checkpoint” northwest of Jerusalem on the highway in his vehicle without waiting. While most Palestinians cross the Qalandiya checkpoints on foot in long lines, despite obtaining prior security permits to exit or enter.
“Imagine a woman who wants to go to a nearby hospital, but she can’t because the hospital is in an off-limits area. This explains a little of the daily humiliation that Palestinians suffer, and unless Israel radically changes how it treats Palestinians, they will create hatred among Palestinians.”
Positive moments in return
Burgsdorf also made sure not to remember only the painful moments during his service and to add part of the positive situations he experienced. Gaza had the largest share of those moments.
“When I was asked about the people of Gaza, I said that they are the most impressive because they make so much out of so little. When I meet young dreamers from Gaza, I want to give them positive feedback to make them feel strong to believe in their future.”
“Because of the situation in Gaza, I am amazed at the amount of creativity and hope that still exists, especially among young people,” Sven explains. “I am very involved in Gaza because this is the place in Palestine that contains the most geographical potential and human creativity.”
The siege of Gaza is more difficult than the siege of Cuba
About two decades ago, Sven moved to Havana, the capital of Cuba, as an ambassador to the European Union. “The United States of America has imposed an economic and military blockade on Cuba since the 1960s, making it the longest blockade in modern history.” But Burgsdorf believes that "the Gaza siege is more cruel and strict than the Cuban siege."
“Although Israel claims that it is not the occupying power in Gaza, it is, and international law is clear. Israel controls Gaza’s sea and air borders 100%, and everything that comes in or out, whether a person, good or service, is controlled by it. When it comes to the Rafah crossing, Egypt controls it, but Israel monitors what enters through it sometimes, so it is complete control.”
The ambassador adds, "This cannot be said about the embargo imposed on Cuba, because most countries in the world do not accept this embargo, and certainly not the European Union. We used to trade with Cuba, invest, and have tourists there. The embargo was a problem for Cuban economic development, and for creating a more open society. But In fact, the US embargo on Cuba helped the Castro regime stay in power because it got everyone to rally around it.”
The ambassador compares: “The blockade of Cuba did not cause the same hardship as the closure on the people of Gaza. I need three approvals as a diplomat to be able to enter there: the approval of the Palestinian Authority, the most important of which is the approval of Hamas, and much more importantly the approval of the Israeli military commander. The situation is even worse than that for For any Palestinian citizen.
Light plane provocation
According to a diplomatic source at the European Union delegation who spoke with Blinks, the Israelis were angry that Sven included a personal parachute in his diplomatic luggage during his final visit to Gaza without requesting prior permission, because Israel prohibits the entry of such sports equipment into Gaza. At the same time, the source explains that it would not have been possible for the Israeli authorities to accept the entry of that parachute if the ambassador had requested prior permission.
As for Sven, he told Blinks that as a diplomat, he has the right to “bring in sports equipment under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Immunity,” and “I'm not supposed to declare what I'm using as a personal item.”
The ambassador adds, "This was a private recreational activity, and did not endanger public safety. I checked with the local authorities and was surrounded by them. I did not violate the airspace. I was flying slowly over a hill that was lower than the buildings next to it."
He added, "Israel in its statement did not attack me for that, but they considered this act provocative."
Ambassador Burgsdorf noted that he usually flies paragliding inside Israel, "I was captured north of Herzliya on the Israeli coast, and I also once tried to fly in Area C on the slopes of the Dead Sea." But my message from flying in Gaza was “a reminder of the opportunities for prosperity in the Strip if the siege is lifted. There is, of course, drama, despair, frustration, poverty and extremism, but Gaza has a lot to offer.”
“Every Palestinian has the right to do the same thing that every Israeli does or can do 10 kilometers from their borders,” Sven concludes, “It’s all about equal rights.”