Titelbild Osteuropa 9-11/2019

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The European Union’s new global strategy (EUGS) in practice
What does resilience mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Anders Persson


When the EUGS was released in 2016, it was immediately noted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed to have been downgraded as compared to its previous status in the 2003 European Security Strategy. Very little has since been said by top EU officials on the EUGS in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which begs the question of what – if anything – the global strategy with its focus on resilience, means for the EU’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? This article applies the resilience approach on three cases studies within the conflict: EU resilience in the wake of Donald Trump, EU resilience in preserving the two-state solution, and EU resilience for Gaza. It finds clear evidence that the EU is applying, whether consciously or not, the resilience approach in all three cases, and has already been doing so for a long time in the latter two cases. The article concludes that EU resilience is a sensible strategy at a time of low expectations given the challenges the EU is facing from within the Union, from the US, and from the region.

(Osteuropa 9-11/2019)


The need for a new EU approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In 2016 the European Union (EU) released its global strategy (hereafter EUGS) for foreign and security policy. The key concept of the EUGS is resilience, both within and outside the Union. Originally, the EUGS’s resilience approach was not meant to deal with ongoing conflicts, as the EUGS includes ‘an integrated approach to conflicts and crises’ (Interview, Tocci), which so far has gotten very little attention. Instead, the academic EU literature quickly picked up resilience as the ‘leitmotif’ for the whole global strategy (see, e.g., Wagner and Anholt, 2016, p. 418; Juncos, 2017, p. 6), including for peace-building. On the surface, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to fit very well into the EUGS’s new focus on resilience as an old, protracted, unresolved conflict with no quick fix that regularly lapses back to violence. The fact that the EU and its predecessor, the EC, have been involved in this conflict for almost five decades is in itself a form of resilience.

As the EUGS is meant to be a starting point rather than an end point of a comprehensive re-calibration of EU policies (Wagner and Anholt, 2016, p. 424), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be one of its most interesting case studies, given its longevity and the prominent place it has always had in EU foreign policy. This begs the question of what the EUGS with its focus on resilience, means for the EU’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Previous EU strategies have not delivered peace in the conflict

The diplomatic stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also been reflected in the EU’s dealings with the conflict. The EU has struggled to formulate FAC conclusions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since June 2016. Neither did the high-profile 2016 ‘French peace initiative’, nor the UNSC res. 2334 inspire EU action or unity (Lovatt, 2017, p. 4). Instead, as Sharon Pardo (2018) and others have noted, Israel has managed to develop new strategic alliances with Greece, the four Visegrad countries and close relations with other EU member states (EU MS), such as Lithuania. The rise of various right-wing, nationalist or populist governments and parties in Europe, many of whom are pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim, have made EU action or unity harder to achieve on the conflict. The election of Donald Trump as US president has further exacerbated these trends. Still, there is great support in the EU for continuing supporting the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and even bankrolling a future peace agreement (Interview, EU official 1). According to Alaa Tartir (2018), the EU together with EU MS, have provided almost half of the over $30 billion (USD) in aid to the PA since it was established in 1994. The international aid contributed greatly to make the PA’s institutions in the West Bank perform, according to the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and the EU itself, above the threshold for what was expected of a state, a significant achievement given all the constraints. A European Commission official told Dimitris Bouris in 2010 that ‘Palestine is already better equipped in state-building than 70 per cent of existing countries.’ (quoted in Bouris, 2014, p. 174)

The tragic and paradoxical reality was that as the PA progressed towards statehood, from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s, the EU became less and less ready to recognize a Palestinian state. The EU’s 1999 Berlin Declaration had expressed the EU’s ‘readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian State in due course’ (The Berlin Declaration, 1999). A decade later, in 2010, the EU’s commitment to recognize Palestine was downgraded to ‘when appropriate’ (EU Council, 2010). When PA President Mahmoud Abbas demanded EU recognition for a Palestinian state during a visit to Brussels in early 2018, EU diplomats told the press that recognition ‘is up to national governments to make, not for the EU as a whole’ (quoted in Barigazzi, 2018). Other EU diplomats, somewhat contradictory, said that EU recognition could only ‘come as part of a peace settlement’ (Reuters, 2018). The failure to recognize Palestine was the culmination of four decades of otherwise progressive and developing EU policies towards the conflict. In the early 1970s, especially after the 1973 war, the conflict became a test case for the EC’s emerging foreign policy. It was a test that the Community passed. The EC managed to speak with a common voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and started progressively to develop its vision of a just peace in the conflict. Hundreds of declarations followed over the decades. Many of them were visionary and ahead of their time, such as when the EC recognized the Palestinians as having ‘legitimate rights’ in 1973, as being a ‘people’ with a ‘national identity’ and the need for a ‘homeland’ in 1977, and calling for ‘Palestinian self-determination’ in 1980 (Persson, 2015, p. 144). Other actors involved in the conflict, most notably the United States, often followed later on and adopted policies that the Community had earlier outlined. This development early on pointed to an important normative role for the EU in the conflict (Persson, 2017, p. 7).

The difficulty of achieving a two-state solution to the conflict shifted much of the academic attention away from the EU-supported state-building in the Palestinian territories to instead focusing more and more on the EU’s normative power, differentiation and other legal instruments for the EU vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see e.g., Persson, 2017, 2018; Lovatt and Toaldo, 2015; Lovatt, 2017). These measures have had some success so far but have changed very little on the ground.

What does resilience mean and where does it come from?

A decade and a half ago, the EU’s security strategy stated in its introduction that 'Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free. The violence of the first half of the 20th Century has given way to a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history.’ (ESS, 2003, p. 1) Today, both the EU and Europe of 2018, are no less prosperous, but appear less secure and less free. Tocci (2017a, p. 488) has described this process as a development from a context ‘of a ring of friends to a union on fire’. As she (2016, p. 464) and many others have correctly noted, the world has become more contested and conflictual. This new assessment was the baseline for the EUGS’s focus on resilience. Resilience is now a strategic priority across the EU’s east and south neighbourhoods (EUGS, 2016, p. 25). The EUGS (2016, p. 23) defines resilience as ‘the ability of states and societies to reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crises’.

The EU sees the concept of resilience as having two dimensions: ‘the inherent strength of an entity – an individual, a household, a community or a larger structure – to better resist stress and shock and the capacity of this entity to bounce back rapidly from the impact’ (European Commission, 2012, p. 5). Although resilience has been mentioned before in recent years in several key EU documents (see, e.g., European Commission’s (2012) EU Approach to Resilience, (2016) Building resilience: The EU’s approach – factsheet; the EU Council (2017) conclusions and the EEAS’s joint communication (2017) A Strategic Approach to Resilience in the EU’s External Action), it is a new concept for the EU overall and for the academic EU literature. It originally comes from the literature on the adaptability of ecological systems where it concerns the ability to withstand shocks, the capacity for adaptation and renewal, and creating different situations of stability (Juncos, 2017, p. 4; Bourbeau, 2018, p. 5). According to Tocci (2017b, p. 70), the EUGS sought to bring together two policy communities: security and development. Wagner and Anholt (2016, p. 415) have argued that resilience provides a perfect middle ground between over-ambitious liberal peace-building and under-ambitious stability, resonating very well with the principled pragmatism that the EUGS also embraces. In Tocci’s (2017b, p. 55) words, the EU will now ‘pragmatically look at the world as it is, but it would approach the challenges and opportunities presented by it by living up to its own principles’. Yet, it is clear that the new focus on resilience and what the EUGS (2016, p. 16) calls ‘principled pragmatism’, like so many previous key EU strategies, must be placed somewhere between realism and liberalism.

What can the resilience approach bring to the EU in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Resilience is often presented by the Commission as something that ‘can only be built bottom-up’ with ‘a firm recognition of the leading role of partner countries’ (see, e.g., European Commission, 2012, p. 11). This would be real challenges in all societies with limited state capacity, but perhaps even more so in the Palestinian territories, which have very limited agency given permanent structural challenges, such as territorial fragmentation, political division, ongoing occupation and blockade of Gaza. On the other hand, the Council stated in its 2017 conclusions on resilience that it ‘requires a political approach’ and ‘is about transformation not preserving the status quo’ (EU Council, 2017, p. 7). Lacking a political approach and preserving an undesired status quo are two of the most common points of criticism against the EU’s policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly with regards to its role in the Palestinian state-building process (see, e.g., Bouris, 2014, p. 3).

As Wagner and Anholt (2016, p. 414) have noted, the resilience approach has the potential to open up international organizations to new ways of thinking and working. In contrast to previous EU strategies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as state-building, resilience is not ‘ready-made blueprints that are parachuted into conflict zones’ (Wagner and Anholt 2016, p. 417). According to Ana Juncos (2017, p. 6), the resilience approach therefore provides an opportunity for EU foreign policy to move beyond what is often referred to as ‘the liberal peace’ to build peace from a more bottom-up perspective.

In the EU’s 2003 security strategy (ESS), resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was considered as ‘a strategic priority for Europe’, without which ‘there will be little chance of dealing with other problems in the Middle East’ (ESS, 2003, p. 8). This long-held European twin-logic: that 1) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key to deal with other problems in the Middle East; and that 2) resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lead to positive developments elsewhere in the Middle East, was also shared by Obama’s first administration. The ESS also made a point of that the two-state solution, which the EU had long supported, had become widely accepted in the international community (ESS, 2003, p. 8). A decade and a half later, major turmoil in Europe, the US and the Middle East has contributed to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less of a burning priority for the EU. As Michael E. Smith (2016, p. 452-53) has correctly noted, the downgrading of importance for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clearly visible in the EUGS, where it is mentioned only in one passage on pages 34-35, with quite weak language:

On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the EU will work closely with the Quartet, the Arab League and all key stakeholders to preserve the prospect of a viable two-state solution based on 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps, and to recreate the conditions for meaningful negotiations. The EU will also promote full compliance with European and international law in deepening cooperation with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (EUGS, 2016, p. 34-35)

Nathalie Tocci, HR/VP Mogherini’s close advisor and the architect behind the EUGS, answers both yes and no to the question whether the conflict’s importance has been downgraded: a form of yes in terms that other conflicts have been upgraded, rather than the Israel-Palestinian being downgraded, but a clear no in terms of space devoted to the conflict in the strategy (Interview, Tocci). She admits that the EUGS is not about coming up with something new, but rather about maintaining the old status quo when it comes to the EU’s positions on the conflict (Interview, Tocci). While this is certainly less than what many critics want, it is indeed a form of resilience.

Operationalizing resilience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

As there are no blueprints and as the EU makes an explicit point out of that resilience could mean different things in different contexts, it is very difficult, if not impossible to apply general analytical/theoretical frameworks of resilience on a conflict where most of the issues at stake, such as recognition, occupation and terrorism have little to do with the adaptability of ecological systems. The empirical puzzle and major aim behind this article is therefore to probe what resilience means for the EU in this particular conflict. This will be done primarily through text analysis, interviews, fieldwork, and observation.

For the purpose of this article, the author has identified three major policy areas where the resilience approach can be applied and actually make a difference: resilience in the wake of Donald Trump, resilience in preserving the two-state solution, and resilience for dealing with Gaza. These are, arguably, also the three most important policy areas for the EU in the conflict. Resilience in the wake of Donald Trump is important because he threatens both the cohesion of the EU, including its long-held normative positions on the conflict, as well as the work the EU has been doing on the ground in the occupied territories, most notably its support for Palestinian institution-building, including support for UNRWA. Preserving the two-state solution is important because it is the foundation stone of the EU’s policy in the region, which the EU sees no alternative to. Gaza is important because it is a key part of the two-state solution as well as a major humanitarian issue.

Case study 1: Resilience in the wake of Donald Trump

The EUGS was less than six months old when Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election. In the same week as he was inaugurated, he said in an interview to two European newspapers that he did not care if the European Union splits apart or stays together (The Times, 2017). While it was and still is difficult to discern where President Trump stands on many issues, he clearly does not share the enthusiasm for multilateralism that is at the core of the EU’s identity and of its engagement with the world. The EUGS (2016, p. 10) states that the ‘EU will strive for a strong UN as the bedrock of the multilateral rules-based order and develop globally coordinated responses with international and regional organisations’. A big nation-state like the US may survive under aggressive nationalism, closure and protectionism, but the EU’s very existence is premised on the polar opposite principles of cosmopolitanism, openness and multilateralism – without which it cannot survive (Tocci, 2017b, p. 97). While it may well be that Trump will reverse his positions, his election is a direct challenge for the EU and prime test ground for its global strategy and especially its focus on resilience. It clearly is a chock that the EU needs to bounce back from and handle.

Trump early on made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a strategic priority and told the press that it would be the ‘ultimate deal for him’ to achieve peace in the conflict. He very symbolically went to the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine) on his first presidential trip abroad. On this trip during a press conference with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, Trump (2017) said that ‘I also firmly believe that if Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, it will begin a process of peace all throughout the Middle East.’ All of this – the conflict’s strategic priority, eagerness for a resolution and the conflict’s role for wider peace in the region – were in line with the standard European narrative of the conflict. On many other occasions, however, President Trump did not at all play an EU tune in his approach to the conflict. At times, it seemed as if he was in favour of the so-called outside-in approach (Israeli-Arab normalization first, Israeli-Palestinian peace later) rather than the inside-out approach which he embraced in his speech in Bethlehem. Moreover, he did not take a clear stand in favour of the two-state solution, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there without any reciprocal gesture to the Palestinians.

The resilience approach has been clearly visible so far in Mogherini’s reactions to Trump’s announcement on recognizing Jerusalem and moving the US embassy there. In a speech to the European Parliament a week after Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem, she spoke of the peace process as being in the ‘the darkest hours’:

The region and the world count on Europe – count on the European Union – to stay engaged with a clear, united message and clear, determined work and this is exactly what we are doing in the clearest and most united manner. (Mogherini, 2017a)

In that speech, she also seemed to make a point out of that the EU, in contrast to the Trump administration, is both a ‘credible’ and ‘predictable’ partner, whom both Israel and the Palestinians know where it stands. On a press conference a day before her speech at the European Parliament, Mogherini said that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could keep his expectations for others that they would follow President Trump's decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem because the EU MS will not follow (Mogherini, 2017b). However, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria have all mulled moving their embassies to Jerusalem (Interview, EU official 1). The EU has clearly sided with the PA over the US and Israel in that the framework for the peace process must be multilateral and inclusive. ‘Nothing without the United States, nothing with the United States alone’, Mogherini (2018a) said at a press conference in January 2018. The latest example of the EU applying the resilience approach in response to Trump came after he decided to cut US funding to UNRWA in 2018. In a major speech in March 2018, Mogherini argued that continued EU support for UNRWA was of crucial importance for three reasons: for the future of all Palestinian refugees, for the viability of the two-state solution, and for stability and security in the region (Mogherini, 2018b).   

Case study 2: Preserving the two-state solution

The EU has been very clear in that the so-called status quo of the conflict is not an actual status quo but a constantly deteriorating situation, primarily for the Palestinians and to a lesser extent also for Israel (Mogherini, 2016). Since 2012, the EU has in several of its declarations on the conflict expressed deep concern about developments on the ground that threaten to make a two-state solution impossible (see, e.g., EU Council, 2012). In 2015, the EU explicitly stated that ‘[t]he preservation of the viability of the two-state solution is at the core of EU policy and will remain a priority.’ (EU Council, 2015) The EU, its predecessor the EC, and individual MS, have already for several decades been the leading actors in normatively legitimizing the two-state solution and concretely building up the PA’s institutions in preparation for future statehood. On the ground in Area C of the West Bank, the EU has helped politically and economically to strengthen Palestinian communities, including Bedouin communities, in order to maintain the ability of these communities to hold on in hope for a better future. In East Jerusalem, the EU has helped to make Palestinians stay in the city (Interview, EU official 1; see also the European Joint Strategy in support of Palestine 2017-2020).

Against this background, it would certainly be possible to argue that preserving the two-state solution is precisely what the EU has already been doing for a long time in the conflict. When the EU’s support for the PA was questioned during the second intifada, either because the EU was seen as supporting the Israeli occupation, or because of the nature of the PA, including its complicity in the violence against Israel, top EU officials such as Chris Patten (former EU Commissioner for External Relations) and Miguel Moratinos (former EU Special Representative for the MEPP) defended the EU’s position by arguing that the political and economic support to the PA saved it – and thereby the whole peace process – from collapsing during the second intifada’s most troublesome moments. In 2001, Patten argued in a plenary session in the European Parliament that ‘[t]he alternative to the Palestinian Authority is Palestinian anarchy.’ (Patten, 2001) When this author did interviews with top EU officials in Jerusalem in the late 2000s, they said that there would not even have been a conceivable two-state solution on the table if it would not had been for the EU’s support for the PA and its wider aid to the Palestinians (Interview, EU official 2).

The resilience approach is a form of gamble when it comes to preserving the two-state solution. If it pays off and a viable Palestinian state is eventually established in the future, the EU will be widely credited for its foresight and persistent support of the PA, even when the prospects for a two-state solution looked slim. But if no state is established, the EU will instead be accused, as it already is by seemingly more and more analysts, of having pursued a misguided strategy, directly or indirectly supporting the Israeli occupation. In any case, the resilience approach fits well into upholding the political horizon for the two-state solution, simply because the EU sees no realistic alternatives to it. That being said, the challenge here for the resilience approach is to make it a more active policy and develop tools to change the EU’s verbal commitment to end the occupation into a more practical commitment. Perhaps somewhat in this spirit, Mogherini ordered a review in late 2017 of all the EU’s activities on the ground in Israel-Palestine to find out to what extent they contribute to the pursuit of the two-state solution. Even if we do not use the term resilience for this review, it is indeed a form of resilience, said a senior EEAS official in Brussels (Interview, EEAS official).

Case study 3: Resilience for dealing with Gaza

Of the three case studies analyzed in this article, the situation in Gaza is perhaps the case that would traditionally be most suitable to apply the resilience approach on, given the enclave’s many environmental and humanitarian problems (For a detailed analysis of these, see Finkelstein, 2018).[1] Already in 2012, five years into the Israeli/Egyptian blockade, a much-noted UNRWA report predicted that Gaza would not be ‘a liveable place’ by 2020 unless urgent action was taken to improve water supply, power, health, sanitation and education (UNRWA, 2012, p. 16).

It could certainly be argued that Gaza’s problems are too acute to be dealt with by a long-term EU resilience approach. But even with political solutions, such as an accommodation with Israel, a lifting of the blockade and successful intra-Palestinian reconciliation, Gaza would still face many long-term environmental and humanitarian problems that come with having one of the youngest populations in the world in one of the most densely populated territory. It is therefore relevant to apply the EU’s resilience approach on Gaza. As was the case with preserving the two-state solution, it could certainly be argued that the EU has been resilient in its policies vis-à-vis Gaza over the past decade, with its massive aid to Gaza, including supporting the Fatah people in Gaza who got paid without working, and by having its EUBAM Rafah CSDP mission on standby for over a decade by now. The EU has repeatedly offered reactivating EUBAM Rafah, the latest of which came in late 2017 when it finally looked as if the intra-Palestinian reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah would succeed (Reuters, 2017). When it was operative, EUBAM Rafah was considered by the EU to be its most successful CSDP mission at the time, providing in the words of the senior EU official this author interviewed back in 2009 ‘a glimpse of the future’ in the sense that a future peace agreement would most likely include international monitors at Israel’s borders. (Interview, EU official 2). There were initially plans to extend the EUBAM Rafah mission to one or more of the internal crossings of Gaza, meaning the crossings between Gaza and Israel, but these did not materialize after Hamas’s takeover of the strip in 2007 (Lazaroff, 2009). Today, the security situation in and around Gaza, especially in its southern part, is considerably worse as compared to 2007. Many questions, such as whether the EU monitors would need armoured personal carriers (APC’s), whether Hamas would protect them, the level of threat from militant groups in Sinai, remain unanswered at the moment, said the EEAS official in Brussels this author interviewed (Interview, EEAS official).

Both my EU interviewees agree that intra-Palestinian reconciliation is key to both Gaza’s problems and to preserving the two-state solution. But the EU has not put its weight behind the reconciliation process, according to the EU official in Jerusalem. Egypt has been the leading third party in the reconciliation process, and it has not invited the EU to play a leading role so far. ‘All we can offer are money and projects in Gaza’, said the EU official in Jerusalem (Interview, EU official 1), but our ‘humanitarian assistance is not able to provide political solutions’.

Conclusion: resilience is a sensible approach for an era of low expectations

The EU’s close to 50-year engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen many ups and downs over the decades and there can be few doubts that the present era is one of the down periods. But this is in no way a guarantee that there will never again be light at the end of the tunnel. Like the present era, the 1980s – from the Lebanon war to the first intifada – was also a very dark era for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the EC’s involvement in it. But it was followed, unexpectedly to most observers, by the much more promising Oslo peace process of 1990s where the EU and EU MS played significant roles. ‘I have lowered my expectations very much’, said the EEAS official in Brussels, ‘but when I reread the EUGS on Israel-Palestine, I realize it is not so bad: 1967 borders, land swaps, compliance with international law’ (Interview, EEAS official).

At the opening session of the 2017 EU Ambassadors conference, Mogherini (2017c) said: ‘Being strategic also means sometimes being stubborn and keep the right parameters in place when doubts and question marks arise’.  In light of the challenges the EU is facing from the region, from within the Union and from the US, resilience is indeed a sensible EU approach to the conflict in this present era of low expectations. But the sad thing with resilience, said the EU official this author interviewed in Jerusalem, is that ‘it is an admittance of weakness, which is the reality, that we are unable to help’ (Interview, EU official 1).

Future studies should look more into the meaning of EU resilience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and analyze to what extent resilience is an actual and active, if not yet official, EU policy, resembling, for example, the Palestinian strategy of sumud (meaning steadfastness or steadfast perseverance), which is a widely adopted Palestinian resilience strategy of holding on to the land and adapt to the difficulties under the Israeli occupation. The three case studies analyzed in this article are examples of resilience in the EU’s policies vis-à-vis the conflict. But as was indicated in the quote above from the EU official in Jerusalem, resilience could as well mean an absence of policy, that the EU is unable to help. This has with a few exceptions been the case with the EU’s policies vis-à-vis Gaza for the past decade.

The EUGS with its focus on resilience was meant to be a starting point of a comprehensive re-calibration of EU policies. This re-calibration is indeed happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it remains to be seen which form of EU resilience that will prevail – a resilience in the form of steadfastness or a resilience in the form of doing nothing?



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EEAS official, Brussels, via Skype, 5 May 2018.

EU official 1, The Office of the European Union Representative (West Bank and Gaza Strip, UNRWA), Jerusalem, 30 May 2018.

EU official 2, The Office of the European Union Representative (West Bank and Gaza Strip, UNRWA), Jerusalem, 28 May 2009.

Nathalie Tocci, via Skype, 20 April 2018.



[1] This author has visited Gaza through Israel before, but was denied Israeli entry permit to Gaza several times in 2018 when writing this article due to unspecified security reasons.