EU rejects 'double standards' accusations in Gaza conflict

Bloc preparing to call for 'humanitarian pauses' but some countries have voiced preference for a ceasefire

The EU has been criticised for its response to the Israel-Gaza war, even by its own members of parliament. AFP
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President of the European Council Charles Michel on Thursday rejected accusations of “double standards” on the Israel-Gaza conflict, saying it was a claim made to “rally part of the international community to attack the EU”.

Speaking as he arrived at a meeting of the bloc's 27 heads of states in Brussels, which has been overshadowed by the Middle East conflict, Mr Michel said he was actively explaining to his “colleagues in the Global South that [the EU] does not have double standards”.

“But we can feel that some in the world are using those circumstances to try to rally part of the international community to attack the EU, to attack our partners across the world and to try to instil some doubts about our credibility,” added Mr Michel, without clarifying to whom he was referring.

His comments come as criticism piles up against a perceived inability among western leaders to express similar moral outrage over both Israeli and Palestinian deaths.

An unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel killed at least 1,400 people in Israeli on October 7, with more than 220 taken hostage. Israel has retaliated with shelling on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 7,000 Palestinians.

Queen Rania of Jordan on Wednesday called out a “glaring double standard” over the western world’s collective condemnation of the Hamas attack when compared with its response to Israel's bombing of Gaza.

“Are we being told that it is wrong to kill a family, an entire family, at gunpoint, but it’s OK to shell them to death? I mean, there is a glaring double standard here,” she said in an interview with CNN. “It is just shocking to the Arab world.”

Difficult negotiations

There was strong consensus to support Israel after the Hamas attacks and a number of EU leaders flew to Israel in a show of solidarity. But consensus has been harder to find following Israel's shelling of the Gaza Strip.

Many EU countries have been reluctant to call for a ceasefire as they feel Israel must be free to respond to the attacks as it sees fit due to what is viewed as Hamas's terrorist tactics. The group is designated a terrorist organisation by the EU.

Divergence between member states resurfaced once again at Thursday's summit.

"Israel is a democratic state with very humanitarian principles that guide it and that's why you can be sure that the Israeli army will follow the rules that come from international law," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

Some EU leaders such as Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said they were personally in favour of a ceasefire but recognised the need to compromise.

“I would like to see a ceasefire for humanitarian proposals,” he said, or “at least a humanitarian pause to channel all the humanitarian aid the Palestinian population needs urgently”.

European leaders have been negotiating for days over how to strike a delicate balance between continuing to strongly back Israel while also condemning the high number of civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip. A joint statement is expected after Thursday's meeting.

There has been a debate on whether heads of state should back a joint statement calling for a “humanitarian pause” or for several.

Some believe calling for a single pause might tie Israel's hands and Germany reportedly suggested the plural as a compromise, AFP reported.

But for many, such semantic wrangling is out of touch with reality as the number of civilian deaths continues to rise in the Gaza Strip. The delivery of humanitarian aid remains much lower than in non-war times.

Palestinian ambassador to the EU Abdalrahim Al Farra said the bloc's failure to call for a ceasefire was "very strange".

"Honestly as a Palestinian, I was shocked to see that the leaders of the EU, the leaders of the free world, failed to call for an immediate ceasefire," he told a press conference at the European Parliament.

Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told The National “a lot of the critique of the EU on Israel-Palestine is the result of the EU not having a strategy for the Middle East”.

“Over the past several years, EU engagement with the region has become a mere component of debates on the Mediterranean and on EU southern neighbourhood security, and focused on issues like migration while largely ignoring long-standing challenges like the Israel-Palestine conflict,” she said.

The EU's position is shared by most of the its close allies, including the US and the UK. British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden on Thursday said a temporary break in violence was needed to allow aid into the Gaza Strip.

More calls for a ceasefire

Yet pressure has also been mounting from within the EU after the Parliament adopted a resolution last week asking for a humanitarian pause. Leaders are not compelled to take them into consideration but they are meant to be a reflection of European popular sentiment.

On Thursday, 76 MEPs sent a letter to Mr Michel, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, which went a step further. They called for an immediate ceasefire, an end to fuel restrictions in the Gaza Strip and for aid to stop being restricted to the southern part of the enclave.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said she was aware of the letter but referred to the resolution adopted last week.

“It's clear that what is going in now is not enough,” she said, responding to a question from The National.

“It cannot only reach only a part of Gaza. That was already a position that was in the resolution last week and it is a position that I'm sure will find a majority of the Parliament behind.”

Irish MEPs across the political spectrum also issued a rare joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire.

But such calls are likely to remain unheard by many of the bloc's member states.

Questioned by reporters on the Middle East conflict, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he was “very much and clearly in favour of the right of Israel to defend itself”.

Without naming the Palestinians, he said “humanitarian help and assistance is necessary”.

But he dodged a question about whether he supported a ceasefire by referring to a separate conflict 2,000km from Gaza in his answer.

“Yeah, the Russian-Ukrainian ceasefire? Yes,” he said.

Updated: October 26, 2023, 5:54 PM