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Palestinians hit out at EU leader for claiming Israel made 'desert bloom'

Palestinian foreign ministry accuses Ursula von der Leyen of using 'racist trope' in speech marking Israel's statehood anniversary
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the North Sea summit in Ostend, on April 24, 2023 (AFP)
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the North Sea summit in Ostend, on 24 April 2023 (AFP)

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has hit out at European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen after she made a speech for Israel's 75th statehood anniversary in which she claimed the state had made "the desert bloom".

In a statement, the PA's foreign ministry described the phrase used by the EU leader as a "racist trope" that amounted to the "erasure" of the Palestinian people.

"The State of Palestine affirms that such propagandist discourse dehumanizes and erases the Palestinian people and falsifies their rich history and civilization. Likewise, such a narrative perpetuates the continued and racist denial of the Nakba and whitewashes Israel's illegal occupation and apartheid regime," read the statement.

"It is also a betrayal to European citizens who do not endorse such racist erasure of the Palestinian people. President Ursula von der Leyen owes them and the Palestinian people an apology."

The reference to Israel having "made the desert bloom" is a common phrase used by Israelis and supporters of Israel to describe what they see as the country's success in developing the land since the establishment of the state in 1948.

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However, Palestinians have long argued that the phrase amounts to the erasure of their history and misleadingly implies the land was empty or neglected prior to the arrival of Jewish settlers.

Israel is this week marking its 75th anniversary of statehood, a date that holds a different significance for Palestinians: known as the Nakba or "catastrophe", it marks the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their historic homeland.

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In her video message on Wednesday, von der Leyen addressed Israeli President Isaac Herzog and praised Israeli-EU friendship.

"Today, we celebrate 75 years of vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East," she said.

"You have literally made the desert bloom as I could see during my visit to the Negev last year."

Israel has been gripped for months by protests over proposed judicial reforms, which would limit the power of judges and allow rulings to be overruled by the parliament.

Opponents of the reform argue that it will weaken the judiciary and democratic safeguards, and lead to a dictatorial regime.

Violence in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has also been mounting since last year.

Around 100 Palestinians, including 16 children, have been shot dead by Israeli forces so far in 2023, while 19 Israelis and one Ukrainian have been killed by Palestinians.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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