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Europe's divisions over Israel support deepen as Gaza deaths mount

November 23, 2023 at 4:09 pm

The European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell chairs the EU-Western Balkans ministerial meeting held in Brussels, Belgium on November 13, 2023 [Dursun Aydemir – Anadolu Agency]

In Europe, political divisions over the continent’s support for Israel are expanding, particularly due to the mounting death toll of Israeli attacks that have now killed more than 14,500 Palestinians, including over 10,000 women and children, Anadolu Agency reports.

Initially, Europe was united in condemning Hamas for its 7 October attacks, expressing unconditional and strong support for Israel, while many European leaders even raced to Israel in a show of solidarity.

In a move that later drew much flak, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, reaffirmed the bloc’s unconditional support to Israel without making any comment on the civilian casualties in Gaza, when she visited the country on 13 October, along with Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament.

Displeased with her unauthorised remarks, which undermined the EU’s credibility and geostrategic interests, EU Foreign Policy chief, Josep Borrell, and European Council chief, Charles Michel, came out to reiterate that the bloc remains committed to a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestine dispute that will eventually lead to the creation of a Palestinian State.

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They also emphasised that Israel’s right to self-defence should be exercised in line with international law and international humanitarian law.

Burden of history

In acknowledgment of its responsibility for the Holocaust, Germany, as always since it was re-founded in 1949, distinguished itself as the staunchest supporter of Israel.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first European leader to visit Israel after the 7 October attacks.

“The responsibility we bear as a result of the Holocaust makes it our duty to stand up for the existence and security of the state of Israel,” he said after meeting Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on 17 October.

Furthermore, German Vice-Chancellor, Robert Habeck, accused “Islamists”, “parts of the left” and the far-right of hosting strong anti–Semitism in a controversial clip posted on X.

“Anyone who is German will have to answer for it in court. If you’re not German, you also risk your residency status. “Anyone who doesn’t have a residence permit provides a reason to be deported,” he said.

The Chancellor of another German-speaking country, Austria’s Karl Nehammer, said his country supports Israel because Israel protects Europe from terrorist attacks.

However, Switzerland’s position is not as clear as Austria or Germany.

It expressed strong support for Israel in the beginning and froze funding to 11 Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations on 25 October.

However, on 20 November,  the country’s Foreign Minister announced that Switzerland will continue to support the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigations, including into the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

British politics

The UK government, led by Rishi Sunak, has been one of the strongest supporters of Israel.

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It emphasised Israel’s right to self-defence and the need to prevent a regional conflict, while shying away from calling for a ceasefire, which it said Hamas would not comply with, anyway.

Furthermore, it supplied Israel with arms and ammunition and deployed military assets to the Eastern Mediterranean to “promote de-escalation and conduct surveillance activities.”

Balancing acts

France, which has generally tried to maintain a balance in its relations with Israel and the Arab world for decades, was swift to draw attention to the indiscriminate nature of Israeli attacks on Gaza, after its initial strong expressions of support.

President Emmanuel Macron openly called for a ceasefire in a BBC interview on 10 November,  saying there is “no reason” for babies, women and the elderly to be killed, and urging Israel to stop its assault.

France has also reiterated the importance of a political solution, improving living conditions in Gaza, as well as opposing any plan that would include the re-occupation of Gaza by Israel.

Similarly, the leftist Spanish government has insisted on an immediate ceasefire and the need for Israel to fully comply with international law while exercising the right to self-defence.

On 15 November, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said: “Let there be no doubt, we stand with Israel in rejecting and its response to the terrorist attack that this country suffered in October. But, with the same clarity, we reject the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Sanchez has also said his new government will work nationally and within Europe to “recognise the State of Palestine.”

Ireland and Belgium are among the other countries which have been strong in their criticism of Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, described the attacks on Gaza as “something approaching revenge”, while Foreign Minister, Michael Martin, repeated that the offensive has been disproportionate.

On 6 November, Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, said: “If you bomb an entire refugee camp with the intention of eliminating a terrorist, I don’t think it’s proportionate.”

Two days later, Deputy Prime Minister, Petra De Sutter, called for sanctions against Israel.

Moreover, Caroline Gennez, the Minister of Development Cooperation and major cities, revealed that the government was considering recognising the State of Palestine.

In Norway, a bill passed with overwhelming majority in Parliament “asks the government to be ready to recognise Palestine as an independent state when recognition could have a positive impact on the peace process, without making a final peace accord a condition.”

Greece, which used to be among the most pro-Palestinian countries in Europe, initially expressed strong support for Israel, with which it has established strategic and multi-dimensional relations in the last decade.

The right-wing government reasoned that this was about being on the right side of history.

However, public reaction to Israel’s relentless attacks on civilians in Gaza forced the government to announce that Greece “remains committed to the two-state solution,” and that Israel should observe international law while exercising the right to self-defence.

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