Accountability for EU Complicity with Israeli Illegal Settlements: A New Legal Victory Highlights the EU Commission’s Shortcomings

After discovering that the European Commission (EC) was violating its own rules around funding projects involving Israeli entities, an activist with ICAHD Finland, with the support of the ELSC, recently got the EU Ombudsman to issue an important decision which confirms that any entity established in the Israeli illegal settlements in the OPT should be excluded from EU cooperation projects. It highlights the failure of the EC in making sure that those responsible for violating these principles are properly held accountable. 

In 2014, the European Commission (EC) published important guidelines specifying that EU funding cannot be awarded to entities established in Israeli illegal settlements in the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territory), in line with international humanitarian law and the legal obligation for the EU and its Member States not to facilitate the commission of war crimes.

In April and May 2021, Syksy Räsänen, chair of ICAHD Finland, publicly wrote about the involvement of Ariel University, an Israeli institution located in the illegal settlement of Ariel, in the medical project BOUNCE funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 program.

Before the publication of the article, he had expressed these concerns to the European Commission. The EU project coordinator claimed that Ariel university staff were only involved before the start of the project. This claim is false, as shown by many pieces of evidence, including a research paper published with Ariel University as part of the BOUNCE project. The project coordinator tried to hide the evidence by scrubbing all the references to Ariel University from the project webpage and revising old documents.

In April 2021, the EC informed Räsänen that the European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HaDEA) was managing the project on the Commission’s behalf and that the project coordinator was “carrying out the appropriate monitoring of the project execution to verify the allegations”. It turned out that the monitoring consisted only of asking the project coordinator about the claims that she had already given false information about. Eventually, there was an external investigation that claimed to find no misconduct, which however was not made public.

Räsänen questioned the EC, but the correspondence lasted for over a year without clear answers. Therefore, Räsänen filed a freedom of information request to access all the Commission’s documents concerning the BOUNCE project. However, HaDEA shared only one document, which was essentially entirely redacted, invoking the protection of commercial interests and personal data. It also failed to locate requested documents that are known to exist, including previous emails on the topic.

Räsänen remained undeterred and, with the help of the ELSC legal team, filed a complaint to the EU Ombudsman at the end of 2022, claiming that the conduct of the Commission and its staff amounted to maladministration, specifically in relation to the incomplete and unclear information provided and the unreasonable amount of time taken to answer to the queries.

The EU Ombudsman opened an inquiry, and on 20 July 2023, issued a landmark decision, confirming that:

  • The 2014 EU Guidelines exclude any form of participation of Israeli entities established in settlements in the OPT, both funded and on a no-cost basis;
  • funding an EU project that involves staff from a university established in an Israeli settlement in the OPT as participants is not in conformity with the EU guidelines;
  • HaDEA’s replies did “not meet fully the standards of clarity that citizens are entitled to expect from EU authorities”, and “the replies given by HaDEA before and during the inquiry are not such as to dispel all doubts about the conformity with the EU guidelines”. The Ombudsman found that  HaDEA had failed to inform the independent experts commissioned to carry out reviews of the BOUNCE project about the specific concerns Räsänen had raised, and thus they did not investigate them.

The EU Ombudsman also recommended HaDEA to review its procedures for ensuring compliance with the EU Guidelines and requested HaDEA to inform her by 20 October 2023 of any action they have taken regarding her suggestions, therefore showing an inclination to accept our contention that there seemed to be a systemic issue.

HaDEA replied to the Ombudsman only in December 2023, and failed to identify any relevant actions to review its procedures, prevent the systemic circumvention of the Guidelines and to ensure good administration and accountability. As mentioned by ELSC to a response to HaDEA in January 2024, this “clearly comes across as a general lack of oversight in relation to the involvement of Israeli institutions based in the Occupied Palestinian Territory […] Such conduct raises doubts on whether the Agency staff, despite being aware of the Guidelines, acted evasively to shield its own inconsistencies.”

The Ombudsman’s decision is a legal win, because it clarifies that illegal settlements in the OPT should be excluded from EU cooperation projects and cannot benefit from EU monetary resources or otherwise. Moreover, the decision pays tribute to the efforts of EU citizens to get justice and accountability.

However, the EU Ombudsman declined to investigate the issue further on the basis that, by the time of her inquiry, the BOUNCE project had ended and had declined to include HaDEA’s delays in the scope of her inquiry. This creates a perverse incentive to delay answering queries. In addition, the EC has not held those responsible for collusion with the illegal Israeli settlement’s enterprise. This is unacceptable.

I am glad that my complaint to the Ombudsman led her to acknowledge that the issue had not been properly investigated, but I am disappointed that no remedial action has been taken. Is it allowed to violate binding EU guidelines without consequences? EU citizens want accountability, not impunity.” – says Syksy Räsänen.

It’s good to see the Ombudsman’s decision going in the right direction. Despite the EU guidelines published in 2014, we at ECCP have been denouncing for years multiple cases that demonstrate failures of the Commission to properly instruct against, monitor for, and rectify project management transgressions.” – says Aneta Jerska, ECCP coordinator.

Source: European Legal Support Center