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EU strengthens ties with Israel despite concerns, criticism

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(BRUSSELS) - The European Union approved 60 new cooperation activities with Israel on Tuesday despite "concerns" over rights, and criticism from the Palestinian authorities on the new deals.

The new programmes, involving closer cooperation in fields such as transport, energy and the environment, were approved at the annual EU-Israel Association Council, the highest political forum for ties between the two.

"We have drawn up a list of activities, which will give us a lot of work in the immediate future," said Europe's commissioner for neighbourhood policy Stefan Fuele, adding: "We are talking about 60 concrete actions in 15 fields."

"We will continue technical discussions ... to identify areas for future potential cooperation," he said at a news conference.

As the EU came under criticism for strengthening trade and economic ties despite its own denunciations of Israeli settlement policy and treatment of Palestinians, Fuele tempered the new deals, saying the EU had expressed concerns over rights.

"We have also discussed some domestic developments in the area of human rights and democratic freedoms in Israel," Fuele said.

"Concerns include the situation of the Arab minority and the Bedouin community."

The EU also stressed "the need to refrain from actions which may complicate the space in which civil society organisations operate or which could curtail freedom of association and freedom of speech."

There was no specific reference however to settlement policy or the Palestinians.

Critics say the move to bolster cooperation condones the very actions condemned by EU foreign ministers in a strongly worded statement May 14.

In it, the ministers said the gathering pace of settlement building, settler extremism and the ill-treatment of Palestinians "threaten to make a two-state solution impossible".

Reacting to the decisions, senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said that "rather than rewarding Israel by giving it preferential treatment, the EU should use its economic influence to end Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine".

"The EU has the ability to prevent Israel from destroying the chances for peace," she said. "All it needs is the will."

Officials in Brussels stressed however that the new areas of cooperation were a mere follow-up to a 2005 action plan and did not represent an upgrade in EU-Israeli relations.

"There is absolutely no change in our policy," said one EU official.

NGOs and rights group were critical, however.

"By enhancing its ties with Israel, the EU is violating its own policy," said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, referring to new pledges made last year by the 27-nation bloc to condition political and economic ties to respect for human rights.

"The EU's package of benefits gives Israel a green light to continue the violations that European politicians claim to want to end," he added.

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