Far from the straight and narrow

A destroyed building in Khan Younis after an Israeli airstrike
A destroyed building in Khan Younis after an Israeli airstrike on 1 December 2023 (image: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

The German government's barely audible criticism of Israeli's handling of the war in Gaza is inflicting substantial damage on its foreign and security policy, weakening democracy not only in Germany, but worldwide. A change of course is urgently needed

Commentary by Matthias Sailer

The horror felt by all German political parties at the massacre perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October was and still is immense. Some 1,139 people were killed and around 240 taken hostage. The inhumane atrocities prompted an outcry and immediate declarations of solidarity with Israel. Such empathy is a sign of humanity and a thoroughly normal reaction to merciless cruelty.

In the weeks that followed, however, it unfortunately became increasingly clear that the Israeli government was making little distinction between Palestinian civilians and Hamas in its response to the Hamas attacks. 

Israeli political leaders and military commanders as well as other important stakeholders in society referred to the people of Gaza as "human animals", for example, while speaking of the "eradication of Gaza" and the collective responsibility of the Palestinians for the crimes committed by Hamas. 

Such dehumanising and genocidal statements have appalled observers all over the world. They are disturbing and should have greatly alarmed German politicians.

Al Jazeera journalist Wael al-Dahdouh
Several members of Al Jazeera journalist Wael al Dahdouh's family have been killed in the Gaza Strip. At least 119 journalists have already lost their lives in the conflict. According to Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, there is strong evidence that some journalists and their family members were deliberately killed by Israeli forces

Appalling figures

And that sense of alarm would have to be all the greater given the current situation in Gaza. Over 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip since 7 October as a result of Israel's conduct in the war, around 70 percent of them women and children. 

The actual figures are likely much higher. Ninety percent of the people of Gaza are starving.   Human Rights Watch and numerous other experts accuse Israel of using hunger as a weapon. Patient care is also possible only to a limited extent: of 36 hospitals, only 14 are still operating, with severe restrictions. 

Meticulously researched studies document the systematic shelling, siege and occupation of hospitals by Israeli forces. Around 60 percent of all housing units in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed completely. 

154 UN employees and at least 119 journalists have been killed. According to Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, there is strong evidence that some of the journalists and their family members were deliberately murdered by Israeli forces. In the meantime, 75 percent of Gaza's population has been displaced. 

And the litany of appalling figures could go on and on. The latest numbers are soberly listed on the websites of the various UN organisations. They provide overwhelming evidence of serious Israeli war crimes in Gaza. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is now tasked with clarifying whether they constitute genocide. 

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Incremental criticism

But while Israel's warfare has become increasingly inhumane, the leading German politicians have only modified their stance towards the Israeli government in tiny increments. 

To this day, they still remain frozen in the rigid mind-set of an undefined concept of "reason of state" based on an ideology dating back to an authoritarian 16th-century context shaped by Machiavelli – an ideology that has since then often been used to circumvent ethics and the prevailing law. With the phrase "Israel's security is a German reason of state" at the back of their mind, they look on silently as Israeli armed forces rampage in Gaza.

It was weeks before some of these politicians began to cautiously show some empathy for the people of Gaza at all. Even then, though, they stuck to timidly formulated, quiet observations that more humanitarian aid must reach the Gaza Strip and that Israel's right to self-defence must not transcend the bounds of international humanitarian law. 

At the same time, the German government had by early November 2023 increased the volume of licences issued for arms exports to Israel tenfold. Currently, a delivery of tank ammunition is even planned. Demands for a quick and lasting ceasefire and calls to exert pressure on Israel are still being ignored.

And the existence of Israeli war crimes has regularly been denied despite the damning evidence. Only since the first hearing on the genocide case against Israel before the ICJ have certain nuanced rhetorical shifts been noticeable among some top politicians. 

ICJ ruling: a slap in the face for Germany

Yet the German government strictly refuses to entertain the charge of genocide. It has no basis in fact, they claim. And yet that is simply false, as proven by lively discussions in expert circles over the past several months, accompanied by warnings.

And it has now been refuted by the ICJ as supreme authority in its latest ruling. The UN court acknowledges the risk that Israel could violate the Genocide Convention. 

Their order for immediate measures underscores just how dangerous the judges deem the situation to be. This is a slap in the face for the German government and its understanding of international law. 

Moreover, by relying on its own judgement of the situation, Germany is weakening the highest court of the United Nations and thus international law, as whose defender it so readily presented itself after the Russian attack on Ukraine

International humanitarian law applies absolutely

The ethical and moral guilt of having ignored and covered up Israel's war crimes against the people of Gaza for so long, although they can no longer be convincingly denied, is something that these politicians will have to settle with their own conscience.

Ethics and morality alone would have required them to communicate to the Israeli government months ago, with increasing force and volume, that Hamas' war crimes cannot justify war crimes committed by Israel. 

That is current international law, clear and simple. The German policymakers should instead have offered to do their utmost at an early stage, through all diplomatic channels and with growing political pressure, to effect a quick and lasting ceasefire. But even if ethics and morals are not enough of an argument, cool-headed geostrategic considerations should at least have shaken the German government out of its dogmatic-ideological obduracy.         

The problem is that the Germans' months-long defence of Israel's conduct despite the overwhelming evidence of war crimes has been observed very closely internationally, particularly by the countries of the Global South. 

Ever since Russia's attack on Ukraine, the German government has repeatedly called on them in international forums and the institutions of the United Nations to condemn Russian crimes under international law and to support sanctions against the country. 

Otherwise, they said, we would soon be living in a world in which the law of the jungle prevailed rather than international law. It was about nothing less than the defence of the rules-based international order. They said. 

And today, these same countries are seeing serious violations of international humanitarian law by Israel that can no longer be plausibly brushed aside, and noting how the same German government is now defending or playing down Israel's unbridled destruction in Gaza. Germany is forfeiting its credibility here to an enormous extent. 

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Double standards

The long silence of the German government, which even today is voicing only the mildest of criticism of Israeli's conduct in Gaza, is thus directly jeopardising the security of the European Union and of Germany itself. 

In future, it will be much harder to gain or even maintain allies against Russia in order to fight together for a global order based on international law. 

The accusation that Germany's political leaders only stand up for international law when it is in their best interests would appear to be justified. This double standard will be held against us for a long time to come. And should Russia or China embark on another territorial foray at some point, many will laugh at us when we ask for support using arguments based on international law.

But the damage is far greater still. For the people of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have great sympathy for those suffering in Gaza and in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel in violation of international law. 

Often, the ruling autocrats take advantage of these injustices against the Palestinians to mobilise their own populations. 

Inciting anger at a Western country that supports, ignores or applies double standards to such injustice is an excellent way to distract attention from oppression, economic exploitation and political failures at home by channelling discontent towards an external enemy. 

To the benefit of Russia and China

Such dynamics can be observed in Iran, for example, or among the Houthis in Yemen. There is little that would be more effective against the Houthis' attacks on container ships than a quick and lasting ceasefire in Gaza and a fair, long-term solution for the Palestinians

Those developments would indeed have a stabilising effect on the region as a whole. The EU and its partners could then refocus their limited diplomatic, financial and military resources on areas where their security is acutely threatened. 

A further escalation in the MENA region as a result of Israeli warfare in Gaza, on the other hand, would only increase the need for those resources, which are at the same time urgently required in the conflict with Russia, being fought as it is on so many levels. The US and UK bombing of Houthi positions in Yemen as well as Iran's attacks in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan should therefore set off alarm bells among German policymakers.

For Russia and other autocratic states, the German government's uncritical stance is at the same time a stroke of luck with regard to their destabilisation activities in Germany. They must fuel divisions and conflicts in our society if they are to weaken trust in our democracy.

The repressive measures against peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrations, for example – measures that German courts have in many cases now deemed unlawful – play directly into the hands of these destabilisation efforts. 

Such repression (justifiably!) incites agitation against the suppression of freedom of expression and assembly by the state apparatus: the perfect opportunity for influence operations by hostile intelligence services, which can then further fan the flames through social media and other channels. Until the courts can stop the repressive actions by state authorities, a great deal of time usually passes during which anger at the state grows and the erosion of our democracy progresses.

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Danger to Western democracy

And this danger is particularly great when it comes to Gaza, because criticism of Israel's inhumane warfare there is widespread among the German population. According to the political barometer released by the ZDF broadcasting network, 61 per cent of those living in Germany do not consider Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip, with its many civilian casualties, to be justified

It is reassuring that the majority of people in Germany seem not to have lost their moral compass. However, not one parliamentary group of the democratic parties in the German Bundestag currently represents this position – meaning that the vast majority of our society has no voice here. 

By ignoring this discrepancy, politicians are sowing dissatisfaction and anger among the citizens, thus weakening trust in our democratic system.

We should not forget that, in the conflict with Russia and rivalry with China, the very survival of liberal democracy is at stake, a political system that is under increasing pressure from autocratic powers worldwide. 

This is another reason, when it comes to international law and human rights, we must not offer the autocrats any open flanks through duplicity and hypocrisy. Germany's position on Gaza is one such flank. And it is wide open. 

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It's all about damage control

After all, Germany's current Israel-Palestine policy is doing great harm to the very core of the government's vaguely formulated and undefined reason of state: Israel's security. 

The war waged by the largely ultra-right Israeli government in the Gaza Strip is a gigantic incubator for anger and hatred against Israel – in Gaza, the occupied territories, the MENA region and worldwide. 

Given the unbelievable destruction wrought by the Israeli armed forces in Gaza, the thousands of women and children killed, the atrociously mutilated victims and countless others who will be traumatised for the rest of their lives, it must be clear by now to every politician in Germany that this war conduct is not beneficial to Israel's security but is instead doing it tremendous harm. The current interpretation of the reason of state, the core of which is supposed to be Israel's security, reduces this core to an absurdity.

The German government must stop ignoring the overwhelming evidence for serious Israeli war crimes. It must name and address them much more loudly and unmistakably. Otherwise, it will in effect be covering up these crimes and signalling to the Israeli government that it can continue to rampage in Gaza as before. 

In view of the ICJ's decision, German arms deliveries are also no longer justifiable at present. Rather, the German government must do everything in its power to ensure that the conditions imposed on Israel by the ICJ are implemented.

Finally, it must mobilise all its resources to bring about a quick and lasting ceasefire and then work toward a solution to the conflict that is also perceived as just by the majority of Palestinians. The geostrategic mistakes Germany has made and the harm it has caused in terms of foreign and security policy cannot be reversed in the foreseeable future. Now it's all about damage control.

Matthias Sailer

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Dr. Matthias Sailer is a political scientist and was senior advisor on European & International Affairs for the Federal Executive Committee of ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS until the end of 2022. From 2014 to 2017 he was a member of the Africa and Middle East Research Group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Previously, he worked as a freelance journalist in Cairo.