EU’s Gaza War response: A tale of contradiction and division
Opinie Conflict en Fragiele Staten

EU’s Gaza War response: A tale of contradiction and division

16 Mar 2024 - 09:01
Photo: Stop the War on Gaza protest central London 28 October 2023. © Steve Eason via Flickr
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In the face of worst-ever Israeli–Palestinian violence, Europe’s selective moralism has also led to strategic blindness.

Since the Hamas attacks on 7 October 2023 and the start of Israel’s retaliatory offensive in the Gaza Strip, European Union 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 flattened most 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 Díaz of the left-wing Sumar party who has denounced “Israeli apartheid” and called for sanctions and an arms embargo against Israel.1 However, her statements do not represent the position of the government as a whole.

Prime-Minister of Belgium and President of Spain, representing the moderate camp, meet with Netanyahu, November 2023
Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander de Croo and President of Spain Pedro Sánchez meet with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, November 2023. © La Moncloa - Gobierno de España via Flickr.

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 blackmail potential: 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.

But despite the EU’s efforts to project unity, votes on the United Nations General Assembly’s Gaza resolutions on 27 October3  and 12 December4 split the EU member state bloc back into three groups. By the second vote, much of the middle camp joined the moderates in 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 toward support for a ceasefire, but a hardline minority digging in its heels, the EU leaders’ summit in December failed to agree on any joint statement.5 And in mid-January, a deeply divided European Parliament passed a resolution6 calling for a ceasefire but conditioning it on “dismantling Hamas” – thus in effect legitimising the continued Israeli offensive. By then the death toll in Gaza had surpassed 24,000, much of the enclave had been reduced to rubble and two million people were displaced, facing starvation and disease. 

In addition to divisions between and within member states, the crisis has also split the leadership of EU institutions

The European response has not been confined to gestures and statements, but also action. Germany7 and the Netherlands8 as well as the UK9 – have continued to supply weapons to Israel, despite their arms exports policies requiring to halt such transfers 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, considered now one of the deadliest and most destructive bombing campaigns in modern history.10

In spite of that, it should be noted that political positions do not necessarily reflect public opinion. For example, according to an October opinion poll11 in the Netherlands, 55 per cent of the public thought that the Dutch government, which is part of the EU’s middle camp, should be more critical of Israel, and only 6 per cent said it should be more supportive of it. In a January poll12 , 61 per cent of Germans said Israel’s military action in Gaza was not justified given the many civilian victims while 25 per cent thought it was.

Divisions Among EU Leadership
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”13 and visited Israel to convey the same unqualified support.14 At the time of her visit, nearly 2,000 Palestinians had 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”.15 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.

Von Der Leyen in front of the European Parliament to support Israel
Ursula von der Leyen in front of the European Parliament to support Israel. © European Union 2023 – Source: EP via Flickr.

In contrast, European Council President Charles Michel (a Belgian liberal) and the EU 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-year-long political and moral failure of the international community (…) to make the two-state solution a reality”.16 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,17 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.”18

Furthest on the opposite Israel-aligned end of the spectrum has been EU Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, who oversees relations, including financial aid, with the EU’s neighbours. After the Hamas attack, the Hungarian commissioner unilaterally announced the suspension of all EU development aid to the Palestinians19 – a solo move reversed after pushback from Borrell and some member states. Subsequently, with Von der Leyen’s backing, Várhelyi pushed through the EU’s first-ever funding package20 for Israel and the Abraham Accords, the Arab-Israeli normalisation agreements that bypass the Palestinians. Aware of its controversiality 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 promote a more balanced and international law-based approach, traditionally associated with Europe. In fact, Joe Biden has on occasion been more critical, for example when calling out Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing”.21 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 civilisational attachment and historical responsibility as well as less openly pronounced resentments toward Arabs and Muslims. 7 October has 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 Hamas’ brutality is accompanied by staggering moral complacency toward Palestinian suffering. Prior to the Hamas attacks, politicians in this camp never protested 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 address even before.

Selective moralism also leads to strategic blindness

Once again, Von der Leyen is emblematic of this. As the European Commission president, she has repeatedly eulogised Israel, even under its most22even under its most right-wing government,23 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.24 Von der Leyen stalled the attempt, limiting the EU to its usual statements of concern.25

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 antisemitic 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.26

If Germany was serious about its history, it should be the first not only to condemn the Hamas atrocities but also to protest the Gaza hecatomb and warn against genocidal incitement by a range of Israeli politicians and public figures.27 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.

Israel Solidarity Demonstration in Berlin
Israel Solidarity Demonstration in Berlin, 22 October 2023. © IMAGO/IPON via Reuters.

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.28

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.29 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 airstrikes30  – are particularly damaging in this regard.

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.

As a side note, hypocrisy over Gaza is not an exclusive feature of the West

In an effort to steer the EU towards a more moderate position on Gaza, Charles Michel has emphasized 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”.31 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”.32 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”.33

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 American Hudson Institute in October. In this view, the identity of Israel as a Western, supposedly democratic, ally is put above international law.34 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 anti-democratic 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.

Gaza after the first week of Israeli bombardments in October 2023.
Damage in the Gaza Strip in the first week of Israeli bombardments, 10 October 2023. © Prachatai via Flickr.

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 an exclusive feature of 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) really 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.35 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. A 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.37

However, there are two major problems here. 

First, the principles have not been translated into a diplomatic plan. If the goal is to bring Gaza under 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 concrete. In December, Borrell presented a non-public note to EU foreign ministers “on the stabilization and future of Gaza”.38 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, he presented ministers with another plan, for an international conference to try to restart a peace process towards the two-state solution.39 But skipping the immediate question of a political solution to the Gaza catastrophe risks making the plan incredible and disconnected from the burning crisis on the ground.

The EU should be open to arrangements that have the widest support and legitimacy among Palestinians

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.40 Some accommodation with Hamas will be vital to prevent it from acting as a spoiler.

Some Palestinians are proposing to establish 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.41 This would pave the way towards Palestinian political unity and elections. A broadly similar approach has been suggested by Egypt and Qatar as part of their plan for a ceasefire.42

However challenging such proposals are, they are more grounded in reality than the scenario of returning the current, unpopular PA into 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 have the widest support and legitimacy among Palestinians. This offers a better prospect to reunite 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. Even for its own sake, it should not fail again.

This article was previously published in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

The Clingendael Spectator aims to reflect on and discuss the war in Gaza and the Middle East conflict from different perspectives, recognising how sensitive and polarised this discussion tends to be. This contribution by Martin Konečný, which provides an interesting overview of the divergent positions of European countries, will thus be followed by other contributions to further enrich the discourse.


Martin Konečný
Director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP)