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The European Union's confused response to the Gaza war

The European Union's confused response to the Israel-Hamas war
7 min read
25 October, 2023
In-depth: The European Union's top officials have been quick to respond to the Gaza war, but their positions reveal deep divisions and contradictions amid the failure to project a coherent policy.

Following Hamas’ deadly attack and Israel’s brutal response, including a total siege on the Gaza Strip and an ongoing bombing campaign, the European Union has struggled to maintain a coherent position.

In the immediate aftermath of 7 October, which saw Hamas kill over 1,400 Israelis, Oliver Varhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, immediately announced the suspension of all aid to Palestinians, saying there could be “no business as usual”.

As the largest donor to Palestinians, this represented a serious move. Just hours later, however, the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said aid would not be suspended, as “punishing the Palestinian people” would damage the EU’s interests. The EU later tripled its humanitarian funding to Gaza.

The European Commission later said Varhelyi had acted unilaterally and without the approval of commission head Ursula von der Leyen. Over 70 MEPS even called for his immediate removal.

But there have also been internal disagreements in the EU over von der Leyen’s pro-Israel stance.

On 13 October, by the time Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign had killed almost 2,000 Palestinians, she and the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola visited Israel in a show of solidarity.

Von der Leyen said that “Israel could count on the EU” and the following day expressed support for "Israel's right to defend itself against the Hamas terrorists, in full respect of international humanitarian law".

There was little to no condemnation of Israel’s breaches of international law, such as the indiscriminate attack on civilians, the forced displacement of one million people from north to south Gaza, the ‘total siege’ cutting water, food, and fuel, or the targeting of schools and hospitals.

More than 6,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli bombardments since 7 October.

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However, such unilateral stances from the top have not been well received by European deputies and MEPs. Some 800 EU staff wrote to von der Leyen to protest against what they said was pro-Israel bias.

The letter came after she failed to offer the EU’s support for Palestinian statehood in a speech on 19 October in the United States, despite it being a core position of European countries.

“We hardly recognize the values of the EU in the seeming indifference demonstrated over the past few days by our institution towards the continuing massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, in disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law,” the letter said.

“We urge you to call, together with the leaders of the whole Union, for a ceasefire and for the protection of civilian life. This is at the core of the EU existence,” it added.

Meanwhile, Josep Borrell told MEPs last week that "the right to self-defence, like any other right, has limits,” distancing the EU’s official position from von der Leyen and Metsola.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (C) meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola (L) in Tel Aviv, Israel on 13 October 2023. [Getty]

'The EU as a project is dead'

Manu Pineda, a left-wing MEP and President of the EU’s Delegation for relations with Palestine, told The New Arab that von der Leyen and EU parliament chief Roberta Metsola have been complicit in Israel’s actions.

“What they did on their visit was to give them carte blanche, to tell Israel to do whatever it wanted to do because there would be no problem on the European side, breaking a common EU position,” he said.

Speaking from Lebanon on the first stop of a tour to show solidarity with Palestinians, he said that the EU’s messages of unconditional support for Israel leave “Europe's credibility in tatters” and show that “it has no foreign policy of its own”, instead subordinating itself to the diktats of the United States.

“I sincerely believe that the EU as a project is dead,” he said. “And every second that Mrs Von der Leyen and Mrs Metsola remain in office, it will be even deader.”

Repeated calls from both EU staff members and the European public itself have not made top EU leaders or the European Commission take coherent action to stop Israel’s attacks on Gaza or call for a ceasefire.

The New Arab asked the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) why they did not refer to Israel during a social media campaign condemning the targeting of civilians and medical infrastructure in Gaza under the hashtag '#notatarget'.

“The EU continues to support Palestinians in need in Gaza in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas terrorists against Israel,” it said in response, without condemning Israel.

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EU's response 'worrying, but logical'

“When they talk about Palestinian deaths, they speak as if they fell from the sky, as if there were something magical that makes Palestinians die all of a sudden, without accepting the reality, that they are killed by Israel,” Alys Samson, the spokesperson of the Spanish platform ‘Stop Complicity’, told TNA.

Nonetheless, Alys claims not to be surprised. “Israel can only carry out these crimes against the Palestinian people because of the total and absolute complicity of the USA, the EU, and others,” she added.

“That is why we are asking that, in the face of the genocide that Israel wants to carry out against the Palestinian people, Europe stops treating Israel as a strategic partner with preferential agreements and that it imposes sanctions”.

Her movement organised a protest last Saturday, on 21 October, in Barcelona, asking Spain and the EU for precisely this. More than 70,000 people attended.

MEP Manu Pineda said that the support is not just political but also tacitly economic. “While the EU might not be formally supporting settlement expansion financially, it does in practice,” he said.

“As Israel expands its colonies and illegal settlements [...], the EU is maintaining and even deepening agreements with the Israeli regime with things such as the preferential partnership agreement, the Erasmus programme, or Israel's participation in the Horizon 2020 programme.”

Around 70,000 pro-Palestinian protesters gathered for a demonstration on 21 October in Barcelona to demand peace and to stop the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. [Getty]

The latter is a research and technology development programme that has funded projects such as Oparus, helping develop remote-piloted aircraft and thermal imaging technologies likely to have been used to shoot at civilian targets in Lebanon and Gaza.

For others, the EU has also always been complicit in violations of international law by not holding Israel accountable.

“There has always been a consistent pattern of voting against and abstaining on resolutions that concern even the mildest forms of justice and accountability with respect to Palestine,” Ata Hindi, an international law expert and member of Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, tells The New Arab

“It goes beyond indifference” Hindi adds. “There is active engagement from the EU and its member states to ensure that there is no justice and accountability. In an institution where I worked, which received EU funding, there was a clear order not to use this funding to pursue justice and accountability in the ICC regarding Palestine.”

Between helplessness and hope

Despite dismay at the EU’s position on Israel’s violations of international law, protests by MEPs and staffers demanding policy coherence could signal that there is room for change.

Al-Shabaka’s Hindi says one of the only paths forward for accountability for Israel’s war crimes is referrals to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

No state has ever referred violations against Palestinians to the ICC prosecutor, but Spain’s Social Rights Minister announced on 16 October that she would urge the Spanish Prime Minister to make this happen

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“I think there will be advocacy in certain European states to make similar referrals. But, do I think that any EU state would make such a referral? No,” says Hindi, who says he is accustomed to having seen little to no engagement from the EU in pursuing justice for Palestine.

“However, there is some discussion about efforts to push African states to refer [Israel]. I believe that, if there was this kind of support, it would put a lot of pressure on the prosecutor to move forward.”

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in Middle Eastern and North African politics, as well as environmental matters, at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, Oxfam,, and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @biancacarrera25