A tale of contradiction and division

People wave Palestinian flags and hold a picture of a watermelon as they gather for a "Global South United" protest to demand freedom for Palestine in Berlin
Political positions increasingly at odds with public opinion: in a January poll by German public broadcaster ZDF, 61 percent of Germans said Israel's military action in Gaza was not justified, given the many civilian victims (image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Faced with the worst-ever Israeli-Palestinian violence, Europe's selective moralism has also led to strategic blindness

By Martin Konecny

Since the Hamas attacks on 7 October and the start of Israel's retaliatory offensive in the Gaza Strip, European Union (EU) member states have broadly split into three camps. At one end are those who have professed to stand "on the side of Israel", flying its flag on government buildings, backing its military campaign, and avoiding criticism even after the Israeli army has flattened much of Gaza and killed thousands of Palestinian civilians. The Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary stand out in this camp, followed by Germany

At the other end of the spectrum are governments that proclaim to stand "on the side of peace" and, while strongly condemning Hamas, have been calling for a ceasefire and openly criticising Israel for violating international humanitarian law. Belgium, Spain, and Ireland are the most vocal members of this moderate camp, followed by France and several others. The third, middle camp, is made up of those who are somewhere in between the first two groups: siding with Israel, but in less absolute terms than the first camp.

It would be wrong to label the moderate camp as "pro-Palestinian". The fact is that there is no pro-Palestinian camp at the level of EU governments: none of them has hoisted Palestinian flags or primarily condemned the Israeli occupation or its devastating Gaza offensive, as many countries in the so-called Global South have done. 

The only vocal exception may be Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Diaz of the left-wing Sumar party who has denounced "Israeli apartheid" and called for sanctions and an arms embargo against Israel. However, her statements do not represent the position of the government as a whole.

Encouraging, rather than restraining Israel

The EU's overall position is the result of a power balance between the Israel-aligned, moderate, and in-between camps. In fact, the common EU statements agreed by the twenty-seven member states since 7 October are somewhat closer to the positions of the Israel-aligned camp. This is because of the latter's greater potential to exert pressure: the hardliners are prepared to block the adoption of common positions altogether if they contain any direct criticism of the Israeli operation. 

A compromise formula affirming "Israel's right to defend itself in line with international law" has been devised by diplomats drafting the joint statements to conceal the deep gulf that exists between those who believe Israel is committing war crimes and those who deem its conduct irreproachable.

Despite the EU's efforts to project unity, however, votes on the UN General Assembly's Gaza resolutions on 27 October and 12 December saw the EU member state bloc split again into three groups. By the second vote, much of the middle camp had joined the moderates supporting the UN resolution calling for a "humanitarian ceasefire" – but the Austrians and Czechs still voted against it. With the majority of EU states moving towards support for a ceasefire, but a hardline minority digging its heels in, the EU leaders' summit in December failed to agree on any joint statement

And in mid-January, a deeply divided European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire, but making it conditional on "dismantling Hamas" – in effect legitimising a continuation of the Israeli offensive. By then the death toll in Gaza had surpassed 24,000, much of the enclave had been reduced to rubble, and 2 million people were displaced, facing starvation and disease. 

Along with the gestures and statements, the European response has also included some action. Germany and the Netherlands – as well as the UK – have continued to supply weapons to Israel, despite their arms export policies requiring such transfers to stop when there is a risk of contributing to violations of international humanitarian law. 

On balance, Europe has done more to encourage than to restrain Israel's offensive, now considered one of the deadliest and most destructive bombing campaigns in modern history. Despite that, it should be noted that political positions do not necessarily reflect public opinion. 

For example, according to an October opinion poll in the Netherlands, 55 percent of the public thought that the Dutch government, which belongs to the EU's moderate camp, should be more critical towards Israel and only 6 percent said it should be more supportive of it. In a January poll by German public broadcaster ZDF, 61 percent of Germans said Israel's military action in Gaza was not justified given the many civilian victims, while 25 percent thought it was.

EU leadership divided

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel give a press conference at the end of a European Union summit
In mid-January, a deeply divided European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire, but making it conditional on "dismantling Hamas" – in effect legitimising a continuation of the Israeli offensive (image: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

In addition to divisions between and within member states, the crisis has also split the leadership of EU institutions. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a German Christian Democrat, has personified the Israel-aligned approach: in the days after 7 October, she projected the Israeli flag on the Commission's headquarters (previously done only for Ukraine), stressed Israel's "right to defend itself – today and in the days to come", and visited Israel to convey the same unqualified support. 

At the time of her visit, nearly 2,000 Palestinians had already been killed in Israel's no-holds-barred bombing campaign in Gaza. Even the minutes of the Commission's internal meetings led by von der Leyen in October emphasise "the need for the EU's full and unequivocal support for Israel". Having established herself as the "face" of the EU, von der Leyen's approach has shaped the perception of the EU's position around the world.

In contrast, European Council President Charles Michel, a Belgian liberal, and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, a Spanish socialist, have tried to steer the EU in a more moderate direction. Borrell, who has most embodied the moderate camp at the EU level, has often spoken more frankly about the realities of the conflict than other international leaders. 

Besides condemning Hamas, he has described the crisis as "the consequence of a thirty-years-long political and moral failure of the international community (…) to make the two-state solution a reality". And while von der Leyen, as the Gaza casualties soared, touted the EU's humanitarian aid to show that it also cared for the Palestinians, Borrell made clear how such talking points come across: "It does not make any sense to give me a dinner tonight, if you are going to kill me tomorrow."

Furthest on the opposite Israel-aligned end of the spectrum has been EU Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, who oversees relations with the EU's neighbours, including financial aid. After the Hamas attack, the Hungarian commissioner unilaterally announced the suspension of all EU development aid to the Palestinians – a solo move reversed after pushback from Borrell and some member states.

Subsequently, with von der Leyen's backing, Varhelyi pushed through the EU's first-ever funding package for Israel and the Abraham Accords, the Arab-Israeli normalisation agreements that bypass the Palestinians. Aware of its controversial nature amid the carnage in Gaza, the Commission unusually refrained from announcing it publicly.

In supporting Israel, European leaders such as von der Leyen have toed the Biden administration's line rather than promoting a more balanced and international law-based approach, traditionally associated with Europe. Biden has on occasion actually been more critical, for example when calling out Israel's "indiscriminate bombing". And while the Americans have coupled their "bear hug" of Israel with private pressure to at least reduce the apocalyptic impact of the war in Gaza, Europeans have nothing to show for their rhetorical support.

Moral and strategic failure

The impulse among a significant part of Europe's political elite to align with Israel is driven by a sense of civilizational attachment and historical responsibility, as well as – less openly pronounced – resentment towards Arabs and Muslims. 7 October supercharged these sentiments at the expense of concern for Palestinian lives, international norms, and even Europe's material interest in regional stability. Identity politics has trumped both liberal, international law-respecting foreign policy and interest-based realpolitik.

The Israel-aligned crowd usually couches its support for the Gaza offensive in moral terms. But the justified moral indignation at the brutality of Hamas is accompanied by staggering moral complacency toward Palestinian suffering. Prior to the Hamas attacks, politicians in this camp rarely, if ever, protested against Israel's decades-long occupation, systematic human rights violations or the sixteen-year blockade of the Strip. No wonder their current discourse sounds as if the conflict only began on 7 October, ignoring the context they refused to even address before.

Once again, von der Leyen is emblematic of this. As European Commission President, she has repeatedly eulogised Israel, even under its most right-wing government, while remaining completely silent about the occupation, violations of international law and oppression of the Palestinians. Not only at the level of rhetoric, but also on that of policy: in May 2020, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to formally annex the West Bank, Borrell tried to put together an "options paper" on measures the EU could take to deter such an Israeli move. Von der Leyen stalled the attempt, limiting the EU to its usual statements of concern.

The alignment with Israel is also justified, especially in Germany and to an extent in Europe as a whole, by the historical responsibility for the Holocaust. In itself, this invocation is more than appropriate: 7 October was the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, followed by a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and around the world. What is on display, however, is a stunning distortion of historical consciousness. When the memory of the Holocaust is used to downplay or justify mass killing and collective punishment of civilians in Gaza and to silence voices of protest, it is the ultimate betrayal of its historical lessons.

If Germany were serious about its history, it should be the first not only to condemn the Hamas atrocities, but also to protest the Gaza hecatomb and to warn against genocidal incitement by a range of Israeli politicians and public figures. Even if its only concern was the safety of Jews, Germany should be the first to caution that this war will not make Israel more secure, but will lead to more bloodshed in the future – and that the only way to prevent a repeat of 7 October is through a political solution based on peace and equality with the Palestinians.

But selective moralism also leads to strategic blindness. It obscures the likely unattainability of the goal to eliminate Hamas, a movement deeply rooted in Palestinian society. Rather than restoring Israel's deterrence, its offensive will almost certainly produce an even larger stream of Palestinians willing to take up arms against the occupier and avenge the dead, especially if all other routes for achieving Palestinian freedom remain closed.

Unconditional backing for Israel also contradicts Europe's strategic interests. The greater the horror in Gaza – and the stronger Israel's sense of international impunity – the higher the risk of a full-blown war with Hezbollah and of a wider regional conflict, which Europe is keen to avoid. The bloodbath inflicted on Gaza with perceived Western support is fuelling extremism worldwide, creating security risks for Europe's own societies. 

The EU's apparent double standards are undermining its soft power, the main source of its influence in the world. And Western cover for Israel's blatant violations of international humanitarian law discredits the global rules-based order, an underlying factor of European security. The statements of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – who repeatedly claimed that Israel was acting by international law, while it was holding the entire Gaza population under siege and wiping out whole families and neighbourhoods with airstrikes – are particularly damaging in this regard.

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Ukraine versus Gaza

Western backing for the Gaza war has also cancelled out months of diplomatic outreach to persuade countries in the Global South to align with the Western position on the war in Ukraine. Efforts to convince the world that European and American support for Ukraine against Russian aggression was based on universal principles of international law rather than the West's geopolitical agenda were squandered when the West veered off those same principles in Gaza.

Europeans themselves are deeply divided over how to compare the two high-intensity wars raging in their neighbourhood. Where the moderate camp highlights the need for coherence based on international law, the Israel-aligned camp draws a parallel between Israel and Ukraine as two Western democratic allies under attack. Once again, the contrasting positions of EU leaders illustrate the fundamental differences between the EU camps.

In an effort to steer the EU toward a more moderate position on Gaza, Charles Michel, the European Council president, has emphasised that the EU must be "a steadfast advocate for peace and respect for international law, as in the case of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine". Borrell has warned that the EU faces criticism for "applying double standards regarding international law in Ukraine and in Gaza" and stressed that "we need to counter it by our words and deeds". While underlining that the two conflicts are different, he pointed out that "depriving a human community under siege of a basic water supply is contrary to international law – in Ukraine and in Gaza. If we are unable to say so, for both places, we lack the moral authority necessary to make our voice heard".

In contrast, von der Leyen has equated Israel with Ukraine: "Vladimir Putin wants to wipe Ukraine from the map. Hamas, supported by Iran, wants to wipe Israel from the map. Shelter democracies we must," she told the U.S. Hudson Institute in October. In this view, the identity of Israel as a Western, supposedly democratic ally is put above international law. The Israeli occupation is once again erased from the picture. 

The reality, in which Israel is wiping Palestine from the map by de facto annexing the West Bank and now also by levelling Gaza to the ground, is turned on its head. And framing Israel as a democracy without qualification conceals its undemocratic rule over millions of Palestinians deprived of basic rights. These distortions allow the likes of von der Leyen to reconcile their opposition to the Russian occupier annexing Ukrainian territory with their support for the Israeli occupier annexing Palestinian territory.

Where EU moderates try to address the criticism of double standards, the Israel-aligned camp self-righteously doubles down on them. In doing so, it helps discredit the case for Ukraine in the non-Western world. As a side note, hypocrisy over Gaza is not exclusive to the West. 

If the Arab regimes that had recently normalised relations with Israel (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco) or pursued such normalisation (Saudi Arabia) cared about the thousands of children killed in Gaza, they would have threatened to freeze their ties with Israel unless it stops the onslaught and commits to the two-state solution

Instead, they have sent reassuring signals that normalisation will continue once the war is over. Unlike Europe, these Arab governments combine pro-Palestinian identity politics at the level of rhetoric and Arab League resolutions with cold realpolitik in their actual conduct.

No day-after plan

Despite European divisions over Israel's military offensive and whether or not to call for a ceasefire, there is one important area where EU leaders have been relatively united: the "day after" in Gaza. People split by ideology can sometimes still agree on forward-looking solutions. 

One month into the war, von der Leyen and Borrell articulated very similar principles for the future of Gaza: no Hamas control over Gaza, no Israeli reoccupation, no reduction of Gaza's territory, no forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, and no sustained blockade of the enclave. 

Instead: the Palestinian Authority (PA) should govern Gaza and there should be a renewed effort to achieve the two-state solution. No EU member state has challenged the principles. United States Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken has formulated a similar set of guidelines.

There are two major problems here, however: 

First, the principles have not been translated into a diplomatic plan. If the goal is to bring Gaza under the PA control, it requires a serious effort to identify what this would entail, engage all relevant actors, and flesh out a plan. This is one area where the EU, as the largest donor to the PA, could be a real player. Such a plan could offer a diplomatic path out of the crisis and help build conditions for a sustainable ceasefire. But more than three months into the war, the Europeans have not come up with anything more concrete. 

In December, Borrell presented a non-public note to EU foreign ministers "on the stabilisation and future of Gaza". It offered no plan, just a menu of ideas – some useful, many vague – that do not offer a way out of the crisis and are wholly inadequate to the unfolding catastrophe. In mid-January, Borrell presented ministers with another plan, for an international conference to try to restart a peace process toward the two-state solution. But skipping the immediate question of a political solution to the Gaza catastrophe risks making the plan uncredible and disconnected from the burning crisis on the ground.

The second problem is, in a way, the opposite of the first: the assumption that Hamas will be removed from Gaza and the PA in its current shape will take over. By excluding Hamas without having a diplomatic plan to bring back the PA, the Europeans are locking themselves into a scenario that may prove to be a fantasy. It also implicitly supports Israel's maximalist war aims: to eradicate the movement in Gaza. 

Instead, the EU should come to terms with the strong likelihood that Hamas will survive and that any governing authority in the Strip will require its consent. The militant movement will certainly remain part of the wider Palestinian political landscape, probably with significantly stronger popular support than before. Some accommodation with Hamas will be vital to prevent it from acting as a spoiler.

Some Palestinians are proposing the establishment of a government of technocrats that would rule both Gaza and the West Bank with the backing of all Palestinian factions, including Hamas, but without their direct participation. This would pave the way toward Palestinian political unity and elections. 

A broadly similar approach has been suggested by Egypt and Qatar as part of their plan for a ceasefire. However challenging such proposals are, they are more grounded in reality than the scenario of returning the current, unpopular PA to Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks and in total opposition to Hamas. 

Rather than trying to engineer Palestinian politics according to Israeli and Western preferences, the EU should be open to arrangements that enjoy the widest support and legitimacy among Palestinians. This offers better prospects for reuniting Gaza and the West Bank under a single, broadly backed, and truly "revitalised" Palestinian Authority.

So far, the European response to the Gaza crisis has been a moral and strategic disaster. Going forward, the EU has a chance to partially redeem its record by contributing to a legitimate political solution for Gaza and by pushing for a serious peace effort. For its own sake, it should not fail again.

Martin Konecny

© Qantara.de 2024

This article was first published in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

Martin Konecny is a Czech-Belgian analyst, founder, and director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP) in Brussels, specialising in European and international policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Previously he worked as Brussels Director of Crisis Action and as senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute.