Anger in Europe over Israeli violence in Gaza

Even some of Israel's closest friends in Europe think the latest Gaza offensive goes too far, writes foreign corespondent Colin Randall.

Palestinian paramedics rush a woman wounded in an Israeli military strike on July 29, 2014 at the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahia. Israel intensified its Gaza bombardment leaving scores dead today, the 22nd day of a devastating conflict, as Palestinian leaders said an offer of a day-long truce was on the table. AFP Photo
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Marseille, France // Israel has many friends in Europe but the scale and perceived brutality of its operation in Gaza are severely testing the nerve of supporters as well as reinforcing the hostility of critics.

In France, which has the European Union’s largest populations of both Muslims and Jews, the conflict has been reported in terms overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the Palestinians.

The descent of big, pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Paris into ugly scenes of violence and destruction, with fierce attacks on not only the police but synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, has been deplored by the media and political leaders.

But despite growing concern at the actions of an anti-Semitic fringe among the protesters, opinion has not noticeably switched in Israel’s favour.

More striking is a reluctance among the French to take sides; their interest seemingly limited to the hope that the hatred of the conflict is not imported further into France.

In a poll cited by the news magazine L'Express, only 17 per cent said they supported the Palestinians and 12 per cent backed the Israelis, while 71 per cent sympathised with neither.

French president Francois Hollande announced on Tuesday that he had telephoned Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, to pledge €8 million (Dh39.5m) in humanitarian aid for Gaza. This was on top of €3m already promised.

Mr Hollande reaffirmed France’s demand for a lasting ceasefire in the present conflict and for credible negotiations needed to attain a fair, definitive agreement on a two-state solution.

The heavy loss of life inflicted by Israel, despite the Netanyahu government’s insistence that is waging a determined, but measured war against terrorism, has also provoked critical comment in Britain.

The centrist politician, David Ward, who has previously appeared to question the existence of Israel, said in a tweet last week: “The big question is – if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? – probably yes.” This led to instant rebukes from his own party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as political opponents, and Mr Ward quickly modified his comment.

But the same MP wrote in January last year of being saddened that “the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza”.

Another voice raised against Israel’s actions was less predictable.

Sir Max Hastings, the pro-Israeli military historian and former editor of a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, admitted the crisis had led to "utterly contemptible" displays of anti-Semitism in parts of Europe.

But he added, in an article for another British newspaper, the Daily Mail: "It is also contemptible that some apologists hurl charges of anti-Semitism at all Israel's critics, many of whom are admirers of so much that this great nation has achieved … Israel's people deserve a less unworthy leader than Benjamin Netanyahu, and a higher vision than that of reducing Gaza to rubble. This can breed only a new generation of alienated, embittered Palestinian radicals, who will sustain their desperate struggle through decades to come."

When friends of Israel are so harsh – Sir Max also accused its army of behaving “like other arrogant occupiers through the ages, displaying at best casual rudeness, at worst murderous brutality” – the response of militant or less thoughtful individuals may be unsurprising.

In the Netherlands, the home of the Dutch chief rabbi, Binyomin Jacobs, has been attacked twice in a week. And police in Germany, where cries of “gas the Jews” have been heard during protests, said on Tuesday that a synagogue in the western city of Wuppertal had been attacked overnight with petrol bombs.

Collectively, at government level, Europe sees justification for Israel’s use of force while questioning its intensity.

In a joint statement, EU foreign ministers said last week they recognised Israel’s “legitimate right to defend itself” and condemned Hamas for “criminal and unjustifiable” firing of rockets into Israel. But they also talked of being “appalled by the human cost” and pointed out that the blockade of Gaza and West Bank settlement expansion were roots causes of the conflict.