Will Europe regret its stance on the Gaza war?

Manal Lotfy in London , Wednesday 25 Oct 2023

The support given to Israel by the European countries in its war on Gaza threatens coexistence within Europe itself amid fears of renewed terrorist attacks and a new refugee crisis.

Herzog with von der Leyen
Herzog with von der Leyen


For the EU to play a bigger role in the war between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, it should formulate independent policies regarding the conflict in the Middle East that protect its long-term interests.

However, thus far that has not happened. Since the beginning of the conflict, the EU has followed the US lead with detrimental effects on its credibility and ability to play a more constructive role as a mediator.

European officials have repeated to their Israeli counterparts what the Israelis wants to hear, namely that the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October were a “second Holocaust” prompted by anti-Semitism and disconnected from the continued Israeli occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state.

French President Emmanuel Macron gave a perfect example of what Israel wants to hear. During a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Macron said of the attacks on 7 October that “these people [Israelis] were killed just because they were Jewish and because they want to live in peace.”

He added that he sought to express France’s “solidarity today and tomorrow” and that he shared Herzog’s view “that there should be the immediate release of hostages [held by Hamas] without any distinction,” adding that “I want you to be sure that you are not left alone in this war against terrorism.”

But although the EU is trying to give the impression of unity, there are divergences and disagreements inside its institutions.

“Differences can be seen between the position of the President of the European Commission and other EU officials. The former fully supported the Israeli position, while others have tried to balance and give attention to the situation of civilians in Gaza,” a former European diplomat who worked on Middle Eastern affairs in the European Commission told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Since the attacks, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has repeatedly said that Israel has the right to defend itself, without attaching to that the need to respect international law and the four Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of civilians in times of war.

In a speech at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, she prioritised Israel’s right to defend itself, without mentioning the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.

Her stance met with unease inside EU institutions. Hundreds of EU staff took the unusual step of writing an open letter to protest against her pro-Israeli stance. The letter was signed by 798 staff members working in Brussels and in EU embassies around the world.

“We are concerned by the unconditional support by the Commission you represent for one of the two parties. This support is being expressed in an uncontrolled manner, for example with EU buildings lit up with the Israeli flag,” they wrote.

According to several EU officials, von der Leyen’s relationship with EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell was already complicated, but the war on Gaza has widened the gulf as he was quick to question the legality of Israel’s blockade against the population of Gaza.

Along with Macron and von der Leyen, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also given unconditional support to Israel. In a visit to the country last week, he told his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu that Britain wants to see him victorious.

German Chancellor Olaf Schulz repeated this week that the time has not come for a ceasefire.

EU leaders also sided with Israel when they said that the explosion at the Al-Ahly Hospital in Gaza City last week was not caused by a missile fired by Israel, and some questioned the death toll reported by Palestinian officials.

“We need to avoid the negative impact of propaganda because that missile that was said to have caused 500 deaths, in reality was around 50 people… and was not launched by Israel,” Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on Tuesday.

Many European countries, especially those with large Muslim minority populations such as France and Germany, have banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Obtaining a license to demonstrate has become a difficult issue, to the point that the first demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians in France took place only last week.

In Britain, the government is considering banning Palestinian national flags, “Free Gaza” and “Stop the Killing” banners, and pictures of dead Palestinian children and civilians on the grounds that they are a “form of anti-Semitism.”

This unprecedented European action to prevent voices supporting Palestine from expressing themselves has raised serious concerns among many European citizens, civil society organizations, and student unions in European universities amid fears that they will increase the assaults on freedom of opinion and peaceful expression in Europe.

After a call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, von der Leyen tweeted: “These are very difficult times for the Palestinian people who have been betrayed by Hamas, I told President Abbas on the phone. I conveyed to him and to the families of those who have lost innocent lives my deepest condolences.”

To say that the Palestinian people are going through very difficult times is a vast understatement given the horror of the images coming out from Gaza and the extent of human suffering there.

Yet, von der Leyen expressed her “condolences” to the innocent victims without mentioning a humanitarian ceasefire.

“It cannot be denied that the European position is biased towards Israel. This is crystal clear, but it should not be surprising. After the Russian-Ukrainian war, the European countries returned to square one with regard to blindly following Washington’s lead on most foreign-policy issues, even if this was costly and conflicted with Europe’s long-term interests,” the former European diplomat told the Weekly.

Many officials in the EU have warned that because of the European position there does not appear to be any hope of a peaceful truce soon, opening the door to a larger regional war and one that could harm Europe’s security on more than one level.

Europe may be exposed to revenge attacks on its territory from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, both of which have called on their supporters to launch attacks in retaliation for the killing of Palestinian civilians.

Director General of the UK Security Service MI5 Ken McCallum warned that the current war may be a catalyst for new waves of attacks on European soil, pointing to the increasing risks of recruiting new extremist elements in Europe.

The combustion of the Middle East also threatens massive waves of refugees, and this also poses a major challenge to the European continent, whose political map has changed radically since the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015-2016 with the rise of right-wing nationalist parties.

But perhaps the most dangerous repercussions of the Israeli war on Gaza will be its impacts on coexistence within Europe itself between different religions and ethnicities. There are about 44 million Muslims in Europe, or around five per cent of the total population. About 1.3 million Jews live in Europe. The current tensions have already led to a significant increase in attacks on Muslims and Jews due to the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Fearing the intensification of such internal polarisation, Dutch Minister of Justice Dylan Yechilgos-Zegerius, the most likely candidate for the next Dutch prime minister, warned that the war between Israel and Hamas could cause a “civil war in European countries” and said that the cycle of violence “will translate into our societies.”

Even though the governments of European countries that have a large number of Muslims and Jews, such as Britain, France, and Germany, have called on their populations to exercise restraint, the escalation of the Israeli attacks on Gaza reinforces European concerns about the spread of hate crimes based on race and religion.

All this will be a gift to the extreme nationalist right in Europe, which has always rejected the idea of peaceful coexistence and stressed irreconcilable religious, cultural, and historical differences.

Europe’s silence on the Israeli aggression and its consequences and its following of the US lead on the Gaza war reflects its inability to develop an independent foreign and security policy that could ensure its own long-term interests.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 26 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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