EU’s Josep Borrell warns Israel-Gaza conflict might spread 'to our streets'

Top MEP takes swipe at EU chief diplomat for not doing enough for peace in the region

US President Joe Biden’s motorcade in Tel Aviv. Getty Images
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The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell warned that emotions "running very high" as the war between Israel and Hamas intensifies could trigger a spiral of violence well beyond the region.

Noting that a leading Muslim institution had warned last week of cross-over conflict, he said there was danger for Europe in the conflict. “We can’t have that, because security on our streets depends on us preventing that,” Mr Borrell told European politicians during a debate in Strasbourg on Wednesday. “Geopolitics depends on us preventing that conflict.”

A statement by Al Azhar Mosque saying the Muslim world should reconsider its reliance in the West and fully support Gazan s caused a “great deal of concern,” said Mr Borrell.

Headquartered in Cairo, Al Azhar Mosque is the world's foremost seat of Sunni Islamic learning. Its statement came after more than 500 Palestinians were killed in a strike on a Gaza city hospital.

“The umma [Muslim world] must drastically reconsider its dependence on the arrogant West. The West, despite all that it has from resources and tools of destruction, is weak when it meets those who own the land in Palestine,” read a statement from Al Azhar Mosque, which referred to confrontation with the Euro-American West.

Mr Borrell also said Israel's right to self-defence must be constrained. "I think we are all united in saying that the right to defence, like all rights, has limits," he said. "And, in this case, they are the limits set by international law and, in particular, international humanitarian law. All this is already obvious, and we can repeat it, but repeating it will not make us advance in the necessary reflection that guides action."

The EU has come under fire for its response to the war between Israel and Hamas. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, had to backtrack on an announcement about suspending all aid to Palestinians after Hamas attacks killed 1,400 Israelis on October 7.

Its president, Ursula von der Leyen, was criticised by some member states for not having a mandate to represent them when she travelled to Israel last week to show her support.

Israel has responded to the Hamas attacks with a siege of Gaza and intense bombardment that has killed about 2,700 people. Both the EU and the US took several days to call on Israel to respect international law and have not requested a ceasefire, causing anger across the Arab world.

Tuesday’s deadly strike on the Gaza city hospital has caused further outrage, and protests broke out in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and the occupied West Bank, raising fears of the conflict spreading across the region.

Without attributing responsibility for the attack, Ms von der Leyen describes the “scenes from Al Ahli hospital” as “horrifying and distressing. “There is no excuse for hitting a hospital full of civilians,” she said, also speaking in the European Parliament. “Those responsible must be held accountable.”

MEP Martin Weber, who leads the biggest group in the parliament, linked the conflict in the Middle East with the stabbing of a French schoolteacher last week and the killing of two Swedes in Brussels on Monday by a man who claimed to be inspired by Islamic State.

“Terrorism spreads like a virus,” said Mr Weber, a German politician who heads the European People’s Party. He attacked Mr Borrell for not having been to Israel in the past four years “to try to establish a peace process in a solid way”.

Israel signalled earlier this year that Mr Borrell was not welcome to visit following critical comments he made about Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank.

Speaking before Mr Weber, Mr Borrell, a Spanish politician, said that “emotions, feelings are running very high. We need to call to the voice of reason here”.

Mr Borrell said the EU had to respond to the Middle East conflict with “firmness, humanity, consistency and a proactive political attitude to the conflict.” He called on the international community to recognise that it had not done enough in the past 30 years to push for peace.

“We have on a daily basis called for a two-state solution, but as the UN stated: what are you doing to achieve that, apart from calling for it?” said Mr Borrell.

Updated: October 18, 2023, 6:13 PM