Europe has traditionally maintained a middle ground in the Arab-Israeli conflict, being neither a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights like many developing countries of the Global South nor an unconditional backer of Tel Aviv such as the US.
However, amid the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, the powerful European bloc is not holding onto a specific position. In the first few days following the Hamas attack on 7 October and the subsequent, disproportionate Israeli response, which called for the “elimination of Hamas,” major European countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, and the UK, unequivocally sided with “Israel’s right to defend itself.” This stance was taken up without addressing the plight of Palestinians in the besieged strip since 2007.
Many European nations rejected the proposed “ceasefire”, which would have allowed Hamas to ‘evade accountability for its actions’ which started on 7 October. European Union leaders issued a statement on 26-27 October condemning “Hamas’ attack on Israel” and stressing “Israel’s right to defend itself.” Simultaneously, they expressed “deep concern about the worsening humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip” and underscored the urgent need for aid access, including “safe humanitarian corridors and a cessation of fighting” to facilitate the delivery of aid.
According to a report from the US newspaper Politico, it took five hours for the European Union to reach a united and stable consensus. However, this stance was not permanent and it was influenced by extensive demonstrations calling for a ceasefire rather than just a temporary halt or a humanitarian truce. Sustaining this trend among the 27 member states of the world’s most powerful bloc proved challenging.
The European vote in the United Nations General Assembly was telling. It highlighted differences among the countries of the Old Continent regarding the Jordanian draft resolution, which called for an immediate ceasefire while condemning all violence against civilians.
Norway, Ireland, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, along with Russia, Belarus, and Turkey, voted in favour of the resolution.
Germany, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Ukraine, and Moldova chose to abstain from voting.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, and Austria opposed the resolution, while Kosovo refrained from casting a vote altogether.
Divisions within the European Union have led to a significant erosion of its role as an impartial mediator, particularly in comparison to its united stance during the war in Ukraine, especially in its first year. The EU’s response to the Gaza war stands in contrast to its previous cohesion.
Europe does not enjoy the same level of influence as the US over Israel, primarily due to the absence of substantial assistance comparable to what Washington provides to Tel Aviv. This has led to scepticism in the Arab world regarding the European position, perceived to be closer to the US stance than that of Third World countries.
In the aftermath of the extensive Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, which resulted in the loss of nearly 12,000 lives, including over 4,400 children and approximately 4,000 women, as reported by the Ministry of Health in Gaza, the humanitarian toll is devastating. Hundreds of Palestinians with special needs and the elderly were among the casualties. In addition, more than 25,000 people were injured.
Another harrowing aspect is the reported 2,800 Palestinians missing, presumed to be trapped under the debris of their homes – targets of Israeli air strikes over a period exceeding a month. Furthermore, a staggering 1.5 million people have been displaced, either due to complete destruction, partial damage, or forced evacuation to the southern Gaza Strip following warnings from the Israeli army.
A heart-wrenching term has recently emerged, Wounded Child with No Surviving Family (WCNSF), referring to the poignant reality of numerous children left without surviving relatives after their whole families were killed.
After more than a month of relentless bombardment and deprivation of essential resources such as fuel, electricity, water, food, and medicine, dozens of hospitals and medical centres in Gaza are left inoperable. Hundreds of thousands of people are now grappling with the harsh realities of hunger.
Given this dire situation, European Union countries, particularly those with significant Arab, Muslim, and Jewish populations, such as France, are compelled to respond and address the urgent humanitarian needs arising from the crisis.
Demonstrations calling for a ceasefire took place in London, Paris, and various German cities, with participation surpassing 100,000 in the British capital. In France, which hosts the largest Jewish community in Europe, multiple sizable protests were held to end the suffering in Gaza. One demonstration saw the involvement of numerous French political elite figures.
A week earlier, Paris hosted a conference addressing the humanitarian situation and aid for Gaza. During the conference, French President Emmanuel Macron called on Israel to “halt the bombing,” deeming it “unjustified.” He said he does not believe “that these children, women, and the elderly... have any connection to terrorism.”
In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Macron highlighted that all participants in the Paris conference, including countries and relief organisations, collectively concluded that the only viable solution is to stop fighting for humanitarian reasons, to protect civilians who have no association with terrorism.
Macron’s stance found resonance beyond France, as Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo asserted before his country’s parliament that the European Union should explore measures to prevent Israeli extremists advocating violence against Palestinians from entering Europe.
“Our country must ensure that those who commit serious crimes, for example, those who commit violence in the West Bank, can be prevented from entering our country and the European Union,” De Croo told the Belgian parliament.
He suggested there could be sanctions on people, including “a minister who calls for the use of nuclear weapons against a population that cannot do anything and that already lives today in horrible conditions.”
At the other end of the spectrum stands Germany, under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who continues to refrain from urging Israel to declare a ceasefire, asserting that this could allow Hamas to regroup. This is the same rationale adopted by the US, which rejects a ceasefire that might be perceived as a reward for Hamas. However, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has called for a humanitarian truce to facilitate the delivery of much-needed aid to the residents of the Gaza Strip.
Since the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956, Europeans have not wielded practical influence on the Palestinian cause, with the US supporting Israel and regional parties, led by Egypt, backing the Palestinians. Nonetheless, European moral discourse found resonance under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle (1958-1970), François Mitterrand (1980-1994), and his successor Jacques Chirac (1995-2007).
The European Union emerged as the initial economic supporter of the Palestinian Authority and played a pivotal role by becoming the first to recognise the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in 1980 via the Venice Declaration. In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights mandated labels on products from Israeli settlements entering European markets, refraining from imposing sanctions despite the widespread view that these settlements are illegal and pose an obstacle to peace; a stance upheld by the majority of countries and international legal institutions.
Surprisingly, countries once part of the Eastern Bloc, which had recognised Palestine as a state, have become among the most supportive of Israel. Examples include Hungary and the Czech Republic, which voted against the UN General Assembly resolution advocating for a ceasefire and condemning violence against civilians on both sides.
Amid these shifts and divisions, Europe has relinquished much of its historical standing on the Palestinian cause. Nevertheless, it has an opportunity to assume a positive role moving forward.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly