Sanchez, left, and De Croo speak during a press conference at Rafah crossing, Friday
Willingness to criticise Israel seems to be taking root in more European countries. In stark contrast to France, Germany, and the UK, which have come out in full-throated support of Israel, parroting the Israeli charge that Hamas is a “terrorist” organisation, some European governments have denounced Israel’s relentless vengeance spree targeting civilians in Gaza, and insisted on the Palestinians’ right to life and human dignity. In a press conference at the Egyptian crossing point with Gaza in Rafah on 24 November, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo welcomed the humanitarian pause and called for it to be extended into a permanent ceasefire to end what Sanchez described as the “worst humanitarian crisis in modern times.”
Insisting that Israel must respect international humanitarian law and stop the killing of civilians, Sanchez said that Spain “may decide to recognise the state of Palestine if the European Union does not.”
In another sign of the strong opposition in Spain to the Israel war against Gaza, the Barcelona municipal council, on 24 November, suspended relations with Israel until there is a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and Israel “respects the basic rights of the Palestinian people.” The council protested Israel’s campaign of collective punishment, forced displacement, and destruction of civilian homes and facilities.
This was not the first time Barcelona had taken action of this sort. Barcelona is linked to Tel Aviv by a 25 year long “twin city” relationship. In February this year, it suspended that twin city agreement in protest against Israel’s “systematic violation of Palestinian human rights.”
These actions mark the rise of a wave of official European criticism of Israel triggered by the unfolding war in Gaza. Other governments appear to have shifted away from the official EU policy line in reaction to the massive human suffering. Warning of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza, the Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Store condemned the Israeli blockade that has deprived civilians in the Strip from food, fuel, water, and other essentials for life. In like manner, Ireland denounced Israel’s policy of collective punishment and said nothing gave Israel the right to violate international law.
Most likely the outpouring of support for the Palestinians among broad sectors of the European public and the condemnations being levelled against Israel in some official European quarters led the European Commission to temper its uncritical pro-Israeli stance somewhat.
EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen expressed her concerns about the rising violence by the extremists in the Occupied West Bank. “We must prevent violence from spreading, and therefore a peaceful co-existence is only possible with the two-state solution,” she said in a press conference in Canada on 24 November. She added, “the Palestinian people and the Arab neighbours need the reassurance that there will be no forced displacement but a viable perspective, with an independent Palestinian state – Gaza and West Bank reunited – and governed by a reformed Palestinian authority. And to this end, unacceptable violence by extremists in the West Bank has to stop.”
The shift of opinion in some European quarters is shaped by several considerations. Firstly, there is an increasing realisation that Israel has long since exceeded all bounds of proportionality in its response to the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation of 7 October, so European states want to deliver a cautionary message to Tel Aviv. While no leader has yet used the term “genocide,” they have used terms such as “collective punishment” and “forced displacement,” signalling that they understand that Israel is committing war crimes. For the most part, European countries are unconvinced by any of the usual Israeli justifications for its actions.
European governments are clearly responding to the surge of grassroots sympathy for Palestinians and anger at Israeli violations of all humanitarian laws and norms in its prosecution of the war. The streets of European capitals thronged with unprecedentedly large demonstrations alerting European leaders to the fact that Israel’s war on Gaza has become a domestic issue, especially as the protesters are calling out Western politicians and the mainstream media for their hypocrisy and cynical repetition of Israeli narratives while turning a blind eye to Israeli crimes in Gaza.
The storm over the Israel-Hamas conflict in the West has extended to the political elites, precipitating partisan divisions. For example, some left-wing parties in Europe stirred outcries in parliament for refusing to designate Hamas a terrorist organisation, insisting that it is a resistance movement. In Spain, representatives of leftist parties accused Israel of perpetrating war crimes and urged their government to act, which probably led the prime minister to air the possibility that his government might recognise Palestine as an independent state.
The shift in mood at the European governmental level may also be informed by concerns over the growth of conventional threats, especially migration from Middle Eastern hotspots. Migration has long been a hot button issue in Europe because of its economic and social impacts. Expressing such alarm, EU Council President Charles Michel warned that the tension in Gaza could ignite a new migratory wave that would not spare Europe.
Perhaps the countries that are hardening their positions on Israel in the light of developments in Gaza will acquire momentum as the nucleus of a growing front to compel major European powers to adopt more balanced policies towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They must also assume more courageous positions on Israeli practices that often spark tensions in the Middle East, generating adverse effects on European national security.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly