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‘Catering to cult of Zionism’: EU chief’s ‘desert bloom’ remark stirs storm

Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu meets then-German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on 12 May 2015. (File photo)

By Syed Zafar Mehdi

“You have literally made the desert bloom,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a video message on Wednesday, hailing the Zionist entity as a “vibrant democracy”.

The foot-in-mouth message was posted on Twitter by European Union’s embassy in Tel Aviv as the illegitimate entity marks the 75th year of its existence – in other words the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Nakba is synonymous with the unutterable persecution and displacement of Palestinians as well as the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of Palestinian villages and cities with the goal of starting a Jewish entity as envisaged by Theodor Herzl, the architect of modern Zionism, in his book Der Judenstaat.

According to rough estimates, more than 800,000 Palestinians were killed, dispossessed or thrown out of their homes by Zionists during Nakba – which continues till late, with more savagery.

“Today, we celebrate 75 years of a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East,” said the German politician who has earned notoriety for whitewashing the Israeli regime’s apartheid.

She has done it before as well. After receiving an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University in June 2022, von der Leyen stressed that “Europe is no Europe without European Jews”.

“I have put the fight against antisemitism and fostering Jewish life in Europe at the core of the European Commission’s agenda. Our democracy flourishes if Jewish life in Europe flourishes,” she said at the time, in a desperate attempt to appease her Zionist hosts and lobby groups.

In late December, the European Union chief was among first world leaders to congratulate Benjamin Netanyahu as he returned to power to lead the most far-right cabinet in the regime’s history.

“Looking forward to working on strengthening our partnership, promoting peace in the Middle East and addressing the shockwaves of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” she wrote in a tweet at the time.

While von der Leyen’s pro-Zionist leanings have been under scrutiny for long, her latest remarks have stirred up a hornet’s nest, sparking anger and outrage from pro-Palestine advocates worldwide.

Political groups and activists in Palestine slammed the EU chief for claiming the West-backed regime in Tel Aviv, already facing an existential crisis, has made “the desert bloom”.

Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry, in a statement on Thursday, called her remarks a “propagandist discourse” that “dehumanizes and erases the Palestinian people”.

“Such a narrative perpetuates the continued and racist denial of the Nakba and whitewashes Israel's illegal occupation and apartheid regime,” read the statement, calling it a “betrayal to European people who do not endorse such racist erasure of the Palestinian people”.

Social media users also expressed ire over the EC chief’s “cringy” and “racist” remarks.

“No matter how much the public opinion changes on Palestine and how much proof is provided that Israel is an apartheid state, the West will never stop shamelessly catering to the cult of Zionism,” wrote Beirut-based journalist Farah-Silvana Kanaan in a tweet.

Sami Hamdi, a commentator on West Asian affairs, “translated” von der Leyen’s remarks in these words: "Today we celebrate the violent occupation of Palestinian homes, the brutality with which they were driven from their lands and rendered refugees, the successful Israeli resistance to all attempts at restitution, and the perseverance of apartheid".

Tariq Kenney-Shawa, a Palestinian-American writer, wrote that the myth that the Israeli regime “made the desert bloom” has been “thoroughly debunked”.

“But what’s more important is that even if Israel paved Palestine’s roads in gold, it would not justify the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the occupation that followed.”

Jehad Abusalim, executive director of the Washington-based Jerusalem Fund, described the European leader’s comments as “colonial rhetoric” – “like Lord Balfour speaking himself”.

“Europe's attitude towards the 'Orient' remains unchanged. Even Israeli historians have exposed these myths, but the power of racism prevails,” he wrote in a series of tweets.

“Ursula von der Leyen talks about 'the promised land' like it's a real estate deal. When did Europeans start believing in fairy tales again? We were told Europeans were all about reason and rationality. But I guess if colonialism and imperialism are involved, any excuse will do.”

Abusalim said what happened in 1948, contrary to the EC chief’s delusions, was a “deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians, aimed at re-engineering the demographics and geography of Palestine from an Arab-majority nation to a Jewish-majority one”.

"Disgraceful colonial mindset parroting Zionist propaganda about making the desert bloom," wrote Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. "Palestinians were making it bloom well before Israel existed & the Nabateans were doing it 1000s of years ago.”

Prominent Palestinian politician, legislator and activist Hanan Ashrawi also took to Twitter to hit out at von der Leyen, calling her statements "absolutely disgraceful".

“The President of the Europ. Com. is expected to have more knowledge, integrity, & responsibility than spouting this vacuous regurgitation of tired old Zionist cliches & anti-Palestinian racist tropes that erase our very existence. Demeaning love fest,” she wrote in a tweet.

EU leader’s remarks came just weeks after bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell raised eyebrows in Tel Aviv with his article in which he slammed violence by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank that is “increasingly threatening Palestinian lives and livelihoods” with impunity.

Israeli regime’s foreign minister didn’t take the remarks gracefully, with some reports even suggesting that Borrell was banned from visiting Tel Aviv.

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