Europe struggles for unity as Israel prepares for Gaza ground invasion

Two EU leaders, Ursula von der Leyen and Roberta Metsola, landed in Israel on Friday in a show of support for the country's right to defend itself

Residents begin to evacuate Gaza city on Friday after an Israeli warning of increased military operations in the Gaza Strip. EPA
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Europe’s unconditional support for Israel after last week’s deadly attacks by Hamas is giving way to divisions over the nature of the Israeli response as analysts fear its military will neither respect international law nor preserve civilian lives.

“Europeans really seem to be struggling with both condemning Hamas for a horrific terror attack while also saying that Palestinian people do not deserve collective punishment that is contrary to international law,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at think tank ECFR, told The National.

“It shouldn’t be so hard to put the two together.”

The EU’s first response to the Hamas attacks, which killed more than 1,300 Israelis on Saturday, was support for its right to self-defence.

One of its commissioners went so far as to announce on social media the bloc’s aid to Palestinian entities – most of them Hamas rivals – would be blocked. This includes social security payments to the Palestinian Authority.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, backtracked and said that funding, excluding humanitarian aid, was simply under review. This is due to “a general sentiment that particular prudence is needed in the current circumstances”, a representative said.

There was obvious support for the stance: two EU countries, Denmark and Sweden, said they would suspend Palestinian development aid but continue humanitarian assistance.

In the early days, Brussels rallied behind Israel and flew an Israeli flag in solidarity in front of the commission building. Its President, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted numerous messages of support for the country and its right to defend itself.

Public calls for Israel to show restraint in its retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which has pushed the overall death toll above 3,000, were made on Monday by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who highlighted in a press conference in Oman that “not all Palestinians are terrorists”.

Ms von der Leyen, who was in Israel on Friday with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, has so far not publicly called on Israel to respect international law.

Questioned by The National, a commission representative on Thursday said it was “obviously implied” that she called for respect of international law because “the respect of international law is the basis of the EU”.

While many countries in the EU expressed support for Israel, the warnings from others about Israel's response could spark divisions.

European Union leader Charles Michel warned on Friday that the conflict could destabilise the union, as a surge in refugees heading for Europe could spur on anti-migrant forces, deepening divisions and inflaming tensions between supporters of Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinians have 'nowhere to go'

A Europe divided over its response to the conflict has affected its approach to Israel's calls for one million people to move to the south of Gaza as it prepares for a ground invasion on Saturday.

There are heightened fears of further mass civilian casualties among Palestinians and of the conflict spreading throughout the region.

Some countries have condemned Israel's siege of Gaza.

“Israel is entitled to defend itself … but it cannot use all possible means,” said Anniken Huitfeldt, Foreign Affairs Minister of Norway, a close ally of the EU.

Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister Micheal Martin called on Israel to rescind the order for Gaza residents to leave their homes in the northern areas, saying “two wrongs don't make a right”.

The European Commission deferred to Israel's right to defend itself. A representative on Friday did not answer a direct question about whether it condemned the siege but said that “there is a worry about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza”.

The EU “is ready to support UN efforts to help alleviate the situation including by the creation of humanitarian corridors”, said spokesman Eric Mamer.

He reiterated that Israel has “the right to defend itself in line with international humanitarian law” and added that should Hamas stop civilians from leaving, that would amount to “another atrocity” by the militant group.

Palestinians have “nowhere to go” and are being squeezed into a small piece of land, said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“To call it an evacuation misrepresents the reality of the human catastrophe that is unfolding,” she told The National.

“The majority of the people in Gaza are being squeezed, with no exit. They have nowhere to go, and they are being denied their basic services for survival.”

While some have called for an evacuation of Palestinians to Egypt – a move Cairo has already rejected – Ms Khatib said the focus should be on holding Israel accountable.

“The real pressure should be on Israel to not go ahead with the ground operation,” she said.

“Rather than pointing the finger at Egypt, and looking for an Egyptian reaction to alleviate the escalation, the international community should be asking Israel to rethink military engagement in Gaza.”

Evacuation from Gaza is also opposed by the Palestinian themselves, who fear a permanent displacement with a denial of their right of return.

Hamas officials told locals on Friday to stay in their homes and mosques broadcast the message: “Hold on to your homes. Hold on to your land,” according to Reuters.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Amman that he “rejects the forced displacement” of Palestinians in Gaza.

The EU should be putting pressure on Israel to push forward with a “more calibrated military offensive” in Gaza, Mr Barnes-Dacey said. This could include limiting civilian targets, giving civilians more time to move before air raids, and not depriving them of food, water and electricity.

“The question is whether the US and its European allies can persuade the Israeli government to move forward in a way that is cognisant of the moral, legal and strategic importance of achieving its aims within international law,” he said.

“Pulverising Gaza and pushing it back to the Stone Age is unlikely to be helpful in terms of nurturing Palestinian voices calling for a peaceful, democratic future and viable negotiations with Israel.”

So far, the EU’s reaction to the conflict demonstrates a close alignment with the US’s traditional strong support of Israel, Mr Barnes-Dacey said. Neither have called for a ceasefire.

“There is clear consensus that Israel has the right to respond militarily in self defence to combat Hamas,” he said.

“The West is giving Israel carte blanche to go after Hamas whatever that means for civilians on the ground, and whatever it means for the broader strategic picture.”

Updated: October 13, 2023, 3:45 PM