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The European Union: United in disunity over the Gaza war

The European Union: United in disunity over the Gaza war
8 min read
21 November, 2023
Analysis: EU institutions and member states have been speaking with a cacophony of voices since the war began.

Shortly after the 7 October Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people and the abduction of around 240 hostages, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen posted on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) that the EU “stands by Israel today and in the next weeks”.

In the month and a half that has passed since von der Leyen’s statement, different EU institutions and member states have shown widespread disunity in their understanding of what it means to stand by Israel in the current context and the temporal extension of this support.

In her visit to Israel on 13 October, von der Leyen failed to mention the need for restraint in Israel’s military response to the Hamas attack. At that point, around 1,400 people had already been killed in the Gaza Strip due to Israeli bombings.

Three days before von der Leyen’s trip to Israel, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell had noted that some of the Israeli military actions after 7 October were “not in accordance with international law”.

This institutional infighting within the EU is nothing new. It is generally known that President of the European Council Charles Michel is on Borrell’s side and that Michel is engaged in a long-running rivalry with von der Leyen. Still, the current Gaza war has made these internal differences more apparent. For instance, in their visit to Washington on 20 October, von der Leyen and Michel held separate meetings with US President Joe Biden.

If the separate meetings with Biden exemplified the disunity between EU institutions, the vote on 27 October at the UN General Assembly on a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian truce in the Gaza Strip laid bare the disunity among EU member states.

The majority of the 27 member states opted for an abstention. However, eight EU countries voted affirmatively, and four countries voted negatively. Among the supporters of the resolution were France and Spain, two of the four most populated countries in the EU.

Read more on the Gaza war
The European Union's confused response to the Israel-Hamas war
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French President Emmanuel Macron first openly called for a ceasefire in Gaza in a BBC interview on 10 November, when he said: “these babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not take the criticism lightly.

Building on a faulty equation of Hamas with the so-called Islamic State, the Israeli leader told Macron that Hamas crimes “will be committed tomorrow in Paris, New York and anywhere in the world”.

Meanwhile, Spanish President Pedro Sánchez recently drew a parallel between the Ukraine War and the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. In front of the Spanish parliament, he argued that “we have seen the flagrant violation of human rights by Putin in Ukraine, and with the same determination we demand a ceasefire in Gaza and compliance with humanitarian law, which is currently not being followed”.

France and Spain, together with other countries such as Ireland and Belgium, have taken some of the most critical European stances on Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war. The counterpoint to these positions is represented by countries such as Hungary and Austria, which together with the Czech Republic and Croatia voted against the UN Resolution demanding a ceasefire.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen failed to mention the need for restraint in Israel's military response in Gaza during her visit in October. [Getty]

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long espoused antisemitic tropes against Jewish billionaire George Soros, but this has hardly been a problem for Netanyahu as Orban has remained a steadfast supporter of Israel.

Also interesting is how Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer took a page out of Netanyahu’s discourse to argue that Austria needs to fully support Israel because it protects Europe from terrorist attacks. The fact that Hamas is deeply ingrained in the Palestinian context and has no global agenda proves the hollowness of Netanyahu and Nehammer’s arguments.

Germany stands out among those EU countries that abstained in the UN Resolution asking for a ceasefire. In acknowledgement of its responsibility for the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered, Germany has shown support for successive Israeli governments on the international stage.

Since the beginning of the Gaza war, the German government has refrained from calling for a ceasefire and has reiterated that for Germany, Israel’s security is considered Staatsraison, or “reason of state”.

As a result of Israel’s bombing and ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, over 13,000 Palestinians have been killed so far and another 2,700 have been reported missing. In the West Bank, 205 Palestinians have been killed in a cycle of violence partly stoked by the most extremist ministers in Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

In a recent statement, Martin Griffiths, the UN Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, explained that 45 percent of the housing units in the Gaza Strip have been damaged or destroyed and that there are 1.5 million Gazans who are internally displaced.

These developments on the ground have added new urgency to the calls for a ceasefire by some EU member states. However, this has not been manifested in the EU’s common position as reflected in the statement released on 12 November after the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

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The EU called for “immediate pauses in hostilities and the establishment of humanitarian corridors.” The term “immediate pauses” is born out of an uneasy compromise. This wording is obviously distinct from a call for a ceasefire, as well as softer on Israel than a call for “an immediate pause” would have been, with its implication of a longer period with no military activity.

This common position aligned the EU with the UN Security Council Resolution that would be approved on 15 November, also calling for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip” instead of a ceasefire. Although UN Security Council resolutions have binding power under international law, the Israeli government quickly rejected the text agreed by the Council.

EU institutions and its member states have been speaking with a cacophony of voices since 7 October. But there has also been room for agreement. The EU has left behind the initial confusion that followed the announcement by the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi that the Commission would suspend “all payments” to the Palestinians.

It is now clear that the EU is maintaining its humanitarian aid commitments and has actually raised the promised funds for the Gaza Strip to €100 million ($108m). Less clear is how the EU will deliver this aid, considering that Israel has kept a tight grip over the Gaza Strip crossings. Also questionable is whether €100 million can make a real difference given the immense destruction of civilian infrastructure and the fact that almost the whole Gazan population needs assistance.

The EU is increasingly looking to its southern neighbours through the lens of ‘migration management’. In essence, this policy seeks to shift the responsibility of dealing with migrants and asylum seekers from European countries to third states. The 2017 EU-Libya agreement is the clearest example of this dynamic, and the failed EU-Tunisia agreement signed in July 2023 pursued a similar intention.

Although no one knows what the future holds for the Gaza Strip after the ongoing Israeli operations, it is evident that the north of the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable for a long time.

In this convulsed context, the EU seeks to contain the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and make it relatively manageable through humanitarian aid. However, the EU has in parallel accelerated already ongoing conversations with Egypt to reach a deal that would include so-called ‘border control’ in exchange for economic support.

Regardless of what happens in the Gaza Strip, the EU does not wish to see Gazans join the increasing number of people trying to reach Europe’s shores, whom the EU has decided to stop with renewed harshness.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is reported to have lobbied European leaders to pressure Egypt into accepting refugees from Gaza despite Egypt’s continuous rejection of such a plan. Israel has acknowledged the existence of a plan to transfer Gazans into the Sinai Peninsula but downplayed its importance.

In the middle of this we find the displaced Gazans, who are being used as a political football but will not renounce the limited agency they have left. As Hugh Lovatt explained for The New Arab, “Gazans will be deeply reluctant to seek refuge across the border” considering that many Gazans are the descendants of Palestinians who were expelled from present-day Israel during the Nakba in 1948 and were denied the right to return.

For all its promises of a ‘geopolitical Europe’ able to stand on its own feet in the world, the EU appears to be focused on stemming a possible flow of refugees from the Gaza Strip while looking to Washington.

Despite the increasingly loud calls worldwide for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, the Biden administration recently decided to send more weapons to Israel. And in an op-ed published by the Washington Post last weekend, Biden made clear that he will not demand a ceasefire anytime soon. Nor will the EU as a bloc.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany).

He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East BlogMiddle East MonitorInside ArabiaResponsible Statecraft and Global Policy

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3