Gazans will remember that Europe did not help them in their hour of need

The EU’s lack of unity to call for Israel’s restraint could have a devastating effect on the bloc’s collective soft power in the Arab world for years to come

A woman holds a Palestinian flag during a rally, in Paris, on November 18, 2023. AP Photo
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The war in Gaza has polarised the US in a way that few other conflicts have – but in Europe, the polarisation has been equally dramatic on a state level.

Before Hamas’s assault on October 7, the main legal ties between Israel and the EU were set by a 1995 Association Agreement. They were generally positive and largely in the economic realm. But according to analysts Claudia de Martino and Ruth Hanau Santini, writing in Aspenia Online, the recent splits within the bloc over Israel’s war represents “a new political cleavage, one that cuts across at least three groupings of EU countries, marking a widening gap between government stances and public opinion”.

In parallel, it has led to an increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

What should be worrying for Palestine, as well as those who support its cause, is that across the continent the far right – which usually takes an anti-Palestinian stance – continues to be on the rise

Overall, the EU has failed to take concrete steps to restrain Israel’s army during its seven-month war. According to local health authorities, the fighting has left more than 34,000 mostly civilians dead and destroyed about 175,000 buildings (or roughly 60 per cent of buildings in the enclave).

At the same time, public opinion has called out the double standards in most parts of the western world, where countries have extended support to Ukraine in its war against Russia while leaving Gaza to burn.

The votes on two UN General Assembly resolutions show a continent divided. Last October, one calling for a truce (not a ceasefire) showed 15 countries abstaining, four against the war, and eight in favour of it. December’s resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” showed eight countries abstaining, two against and 17 countries in favour. The splits make it incredibly complicated for Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, to set out a broad diplomatic position for the bloc.

There are often historical motivations for the contrasting stands.

Germany, which still carries considerable historical guilt for the Holocaust, is the largest supplier of arms to Israel after the US and gives its government blanket support.

Once seen as a reliable mediator in the Middle East – in the past, Germany facilitated exchange deals between Hezbollah and Israel in 2004 and 2008 – Berlin’s political class went fiercely hawkish after the October 7 attack, calling for Israel’s right to self-defence. The media has been skewed towards Israel: Axel Springer’s publications Die Welt and Bild require some of their employees in Germany to sign up to their constitution, which defends Israel's right to exist.

The public outcry against Germany’s position has largely been from Jewish Germans, such as Susan Nieman, who wrote in The New York Review of Books: “Germany’s insistence on atoning for the Nazis by calling Israel its Staatsraison – its national interest – has in recent weeks assumed a fevered pitch.”

Ms Nieman cites right-wing politicians who have called for making unconditional support for Israel a condition of living in Germany. The appeal was meant to apply to immigrants from Muslim countries.

In April, a Palestinian-British reconstructive plastic surgeon who worked in Gaza, Dr Ghassan Abu Sitta, was banned from entering Germany to attend a conference, which itself was later banned. “Today we saw how accomplices in a crime behave,” Dr Abu Sitta later said. “Accomplices in a crime try to hide the evidence and silence the witnesses.”

The UK's relations are more complicated than even Germany's. It's no longer part of the EU but an important European neighbour. Britain has a strong human rights community that is quick to protest and take to the streets. Who can forget that more than a million people marched through London in the run-up to the ill-fated US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003?

But UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a politically weak leader, has backed US President Joe Biden, who has a fierce, visceral attachment to Israel. Foreign Secretary David Cameron has flip-flopped on views.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, he backed Israel unequivocally. But shortly after the seven World Central Kitchen aid workers were killed, Mr Cameron said that Israel is expected to “abide by international humanitarian law”. Hollow words, as Israel has hardly ever abided by international law – going back to its illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

France has the largest Jewish population and the largest Muslim population in Europe, and Paris fears both protests and terrorist attacks of any kind. Post-October 7, its media has largely reflected Israel’s narrative, but this has changed since the war has grown so brutal.

This week, protests in support of Palestine took place at French universities, Sciences Po and La Sorbonne. They occupied buildings, inspired by the student protests in the US.

For what it’s worth, French President Emmanuel Macron has said the that the forced displacement of people from Rafah would be a “war crime”.

Farther south, Spain is regarded as among the most pro-Palestinian countries in Europe. It did not even have diplomatic ties to Israel until 1986, four decades after the latter’s creation.

The Spanish public has taken a brave stand to protest Israel’s carnage. In Guernica, the Spanish town brutally bombed by the Nazi Condor Legion and immortalised by Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, thousands gathered in solidarity with Gazans.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who heads a minority left-wing government, was one of the first leaders to criticise Israeli policies, calling them “unacceptable” and saying that given “the footage we are seeing and the growing numbers of children dying, I have serious doubts [Israel] is complying with international humanitarian law”. Israel responded by withdrawing its ambassador to Madrid and reprimanding the Spanish ambassador to Israel.

Ireland – a nation that knows what colonisation is, having endured British rule for about 800 years – has been called “the most pro-Palestinian country in Europe” by CNN. In Ireland, there is a deep empathy and sympathy for the Palestinian people.

Ireland intervened in the genocide case against Israel brought to the International Court of Justice by South Africa, and an Irish barrister, Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, gave impassioned speeches accusing it of genocide. “The international community continues to fail the Palestinian people despite the overt dehumanising genocidal rhetoric by Israeli government and military officials matched by Israeli army actions on the ground,” she said.

And yet it’s hard to take all of Europe and get a committed stance. Public opinion polls are instructive, in that most people seem to feel that the issue doesn’t really matter to them. A YouGov poll taken over November and December showed sympathy for both sides. “Not sure” was the most common response in another poll taken in six European countries.

What should be worrying for Palestine, as well as those who support its cause, is that across the continent the far right – which usually takes an anti-Palestinian stance – continues to be on the rise.

Italy, Finland and Greece have seen this tilt, and with European elections looming in June, could Spain be next? Such shifts are expected to affect a number of policies, ranging from climate change to migration. This could mean a more conservative Brussels.

And then there is the issue of global reputation, particularly in the Global South, where there has been much greater outrage over Gaza. The EU’s lack of unity to call out for Israel’s restraint could, thus, have a devastating effect on the bloc’s collective soft power in the Arab world for years to come.

All this means that Gazans will – and should – remember that Europeans did not come to help them in their hour of absolute dire need.

Published: May 09, 2024, 4:00 AM