Catalan premier ruffles feathers on Israel trip by visiting disputed Old City

Artur Mas accused of “legitimizing occupation” after snubbing Palestinian leadership

Artur Mas at the Western Wall in disputed East Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Artur Mas at the Western Wall in disputed East Jerusalem on Tuesday. JORDI BEDMAR (EFE)

The decision of Catalonia regional premier Artur Mas not to meet with any Palestinian officials during his four-day visit to Israel has caused profound offense within the hierarchy of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Mas opted only to meet with Israeli authorities on the basis that his trip to the region is purely concerned with economic matters. However, the Catalan leader set foot on territory that the PLO considers occupied when he visited Jerusalem's Old City.

PLO spokesman Xavier Abu Eid told EL PAÍS that Mas should not have entered the Old City if his visit was solely limited to Israel. "We are not going to tell him that he shouldn't visit Israel, but if he doesn't want to go to Palestine, we would ask that he not go to East Jerusalem," he said, adding that by doing so Mas had "consciously or unconsciously" helped to legitimize "an occupation that is recognized by the official bodies."

The international community does not recognize the annexation of East Jerusalem — within which the Old City lies — by Israel in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and considers the area occupied territory. Palestine has always defended its right to base the capital of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, whereas Israel declared in 1980 that it regarded the whole city as its capital.

The PLO considers Mas's actions especially reprehensible given the "respect and admiration" that exists between Palestine and Spain, and "particularly toward Catalonia." In view of these relations, Abu Eid opined that the Catalan premier "has positioned himself on the wrong side of history."

We know that Mas is not a head of state but international law governs everyone”

The PLO pointed out that Mas's visit to East Jerusalem — where the Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred site, is located — does not form part of the habitual tour of heads of state that choose to visit Israel but not Palestine.

"We know that Mr Mas is not a head of state. However, independent of his position as a regional premier, international law governs everyone," said Abu Eid. "What the premier of Catalonia has done is a serious insult."

During his trip to Israel, Mas has reiterated that he chose only to meet with Israeli officials as the purpose of the visit was economic and not political. The majority of events he has attended have taken place in universities, research centers and local businesses. Mas was, however, received by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whom many polls place in a strong position to be named prime minister in the future.

The PLO confirmed on Wednesday that Mas had not made any formal request to meet with the organization, which is considering whether to lodge a protest at the Spanish Embassy in Israel, which actively participated in organizing Mas's stay.

The PLO is considering a formal protest at the Spanish embassy

Other Palestinian officials indicated that logically, if Mas did not wish to arrange a formal meeting with a PLO official, he could have arranged a private visit to a Palestinian city near Jerusalem, such as Bethlehem. The controversy sparked by Mas led the PLO to recall a similar incident in April, when Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem, leading the PLO to express its "profound discontent" with the Canadian government.

A 2008 proposal tabled by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid out a plan for the Old City to be placed under the supervision of an international committee made up of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, Israel and Palestine.

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