How Israel's war on Gaza is exposing the European Union's divisions

8 min read
30 January, 2024

On 22 January, the foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) met in Brussels with three main topics on the agenda: the Ukraine war, the Gaza war, and the situation in the Red Sea.

Both Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz and his Palestinian Authority (PA) counterpart Riyad al-Maliki addressed EU foreign ministers. Katz was supposed to discuss the situation in Gaza, where the Israeli war has killed at least 26,257 Palestinians and wounded 64,797 others.

To the surprise of most EU foreign ministers, Katz avoided mentioning the ongoing war in his address.

After the meeting, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell explained that Katz had used his speech to present a project for an artificial island off the Gaza Strip coast and railway links to India, which “did not have much to do with the discussion at hand”.

"The EU is far from powerless regarding the war in Gaza. But while there are limitations to this power, it has also been further restricted by the multiple disagreements among EU countries"

Borrell also stated that if Israel does not want a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, this “does not stop others taking part”. Borrell’s words were a direct response to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on 18 January expressed in the clearest terms he has ever used in public that he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

After Netanyahu acknowledged what until then was an open secret, Borrell presented a roadmap for a peace process in Israel and Palestine to EU foreign ministers. There were at least two versions of the document, one with ten points and the other with twelve.

According to the roadmap, a preparatory conference would be convened where the EU and the Arab League would engage with Israeli and Palestinian representatives to draft a peace plan. The peace process would continue even if one of the parties refused to participate.

The sole mention of the fact that Palestinian statehood cannot depend on the generosity of Netanyahu’s government, or any other Israeli government for that matter, provoked a certain nervousness in Israel.

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According to the Spanish newspaper El País, the Israeli government has decided that Borrell will no longer be considered a valid interlocutor because he “has situated himself on the Palestinian side”. Meanwhile, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, called for “Israel’s foreign policy to get muscular” and “never let Borrell step foot on Israeli soil”.

Israel need not worry, however, because Borrell’s proposal has no chance of success. Before facing many other obstacles, it would have to receive unanimous support among EU member countries, and there is no joint political will behind the roadmap.

While Israeli FM Katz refused to mention the Gaza war during his speech to EU counterparts, he did, however, use his trip to Brussels to ensure that no consensus emerges within the EU on calls for a ceasefire.

Katz had individual meetings with different EU foreign ministers, among them the Austrian and Czech foreign ministers, two of the closest to Israel. Katz also found time to meet Olivér Várhelyi, the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement who announced on 9 October that the EU was suspending its development aid funds for Palestine following the 7 October attacks.

It later became clear that Várhelyi’s statement did not reflect EU policy. Várhelyi is a Hungarian commissioner appointed by the government of Viktor Orbán, a staunch ally of Netanyahu.

Israel's war on Gaza has killed over 26,000 Palestinians, including more than 10,000 children. [Getty]

The EU's divided member states

The first month of the Gaza War showed divisions between President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who was closer to Israel’s positions, and foreign policy chief Borrell. The differences between countries also grew wider.

All EU countries expressed that Israel had a right to self-defence. However, they differed on where to place the limits to this right once it was evident that the Israeli military operation in Gaza was responsible for an unprecedented death toll.

On 26 October, eight EU countries voted in favour of a ceasefire at the UN General Assembly and four countries voted against it. On 12 December, in a similar vote, 17 EU countries supported a ceasefire and two countries, the Czech Republic and Austria, opposed it. Germany and Italy abstained on both occasions, while France and Spain voted in favour both times. An important shift had occurred between the two votes, but the bloc that did not support a ceasefire remained strong.

EU member states also do not share the same views regarding the rebel Yemeni Houthi movement’s attacks against ships in the southern Red Sea, which have been a constant since November 2023.

"Another front of division emerged when South Africa brought accusations of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice over its military campaign in Gaza"

Although the Houthis have increasingly been attacking ships with no connection to Israel, their stated objective is to carry out attacks “until the Israeli aggression stops” and Palestinians are “victorious.” As a response to the Houthi attacks, the US, on two occasions in partnership with the UK, has carried out nine rounds of strikes against Houthi-controlled positions in Yemen. With no backing from the UN Security Council, on 11 January only eight countries signed a joint statement with the US and the UK justifying the strikes against Yemen.

Three of the signatories, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, are EU members. The Netherlands has even played a minor role in two rounds of strikes. This could be related to the ambition of Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte to become Secretary General of NATO.

The use of military options against the Houthis is frowned upon by those EU countries, like France and Spain, that have long been advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza. There is no guarantee that the Houthis will stop their attacks if the war in Gaza ends. Still, the countries favouring a more diplomatic approach cannot understand why applying pressure on Israel for a ceasefire, the policy most likely to prevent further Houthi attacks, is not even being considered.

This notwithstanding, the EU foreign ministers agreed in their last meeting to the creation of a new naval mission under EU command that would send at least three warships to the Red Sea to protect ships in the area.

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Response to the ICJ's ruling on Gaza

Another front of division emerged when South Africa brought accusations of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its military campaign in Gaza.

On 26 January, the ICJ ordered Israel to prevent any genocidal acts against Palestinians in Gaza and demanded that the Gazan population receive urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance. A statement by the EU Commission following the ICJ ruling emphasised that the court’s orders are binding on all parties, and it thus expects “their full, immediate and effective implementation”.

Before the ruling, Germany had stated that the genocide allegations “lacked any basis” and announced it would intervene in the ICJ’s proceedings as a third party to support Israel’s position. After the ruling, Germany remarked that “Israel must adhere to the Court’s order” but remains committed to having a third-party role in the court proceedings.

The process at The Hague could drag on for years before the ICJ decides whether Israel is responsible for genocide in Gaza. Adopting a very different approach to the ICJ ruling, the Irish government is currently considering the option of supporting South Africa’s position as a third party.

Nearly the entire 2.3 million population of Gaza has been forcibly displaced by Israel's war. [Getty]


Yet another new fault line within the EU has emerged after the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) announced on 26 January that it had opened an investigation into several employees alleged to have participated in the 7 October Hamas attacks against Israel.

According to the US, which has suspended funds for UNRWA after the revelations, 12 members of the UN agency could have been involved. UNRWA has terminated their contracts. To put matters into perspective, UNRWA has a staff of about 13,000 workers only in the Gaza Strip and 152 of their workers have been killed during the current war. Moreover, UNRWA remains the main provider of humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip, where around 85% of the population is currently displaced.

"The most significant pressure tool at Brussels' disposal is arguably the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which entered into force in 2000"

Among EU countries, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania and Finland joined the US and the UK in suspending transfers to the UNRWA. EU member states, together with the European Commission, contribute close to half of UNRWA’s funding. Whereas the Commission has announced it will not take any final decision until the UNRWA’s investigation is completed, Berlin’s decision is likely to have major consequences for the population in Gaza. Germany is the second largest contributor to UNRWA behind the US.

The EU is far from powerless regarding the war in Gaza. But while there are limitations to this power, it has also been further restricted by the multiple disagreements among EU countries. The EU’s institutional architecture, which requires unanimity for any major foreign policy decision, has precluded decisive action.

A joint EU call for a ceasefire would have high symbolic value, and the suspension of weapons exports to Israel by EU member countries would be a consequential decision. But both moves could easily be countered by Washington’s support for Israel at the UN Security Council and the US provision of weapons to Israel.

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The most significant pressure tool at Brussels’ disposal is arguably the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which entered into force in 2000. For the EU, Israel represented less than 1% of its total trade in goods in 2022. Meanwhile, Israel’s exports to the EU made up around 30% of its trade in goods during the same year, and the figure was similar for Israeli imports from the EU.

The suspension of the bilateral trade agreement would have important economic consequences for Israel. But the EU is struggling to even approve its first package of sanctions against violent Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, where attacks against Palestinians have multiplied since 7 October.

Sanctioning violent settlers is something that both the US and the UK did almost two months ago. Considering this, any suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement remains almost inconceivable.

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 Blog, Middle East Monitor, Inside Arabia, Responsible Statecraft and Global Policy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3