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Is Germany changing course on Israel after its Rafah offensive?

May 30, 2024 at 12:30 pm

Some students from a pro-Palestinian protest are being blocked by police as they block the entrance access to Bonn University as an act of protest against the war in Gaza and increasing Israeli attacks on Rafah in Bonn, Germany, on May 29, 2024 [Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Recent remarks from German officials backing the independence of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and showing concern about Palestinian casualties in Rafah serve as a face-saving balancing act. For Palestinians in Germany, though, this is too little, too late.

“Now is the time, more than ever, to stand up to hate and talk about our hostages,” a middle-aged visitor to Berlin’s newly inaugurated Hostages Square told me when I arrived there. Constructed at Berlin’s historic Bebelplatz at Unter den Linden, the former site of Nazi book burnings in the German capital, the square attempts to raise awareness about Israeli civilians taken hostage by Hamas on 7 October. Calls are made for their “immediate and unconditional release” from captivity in Gaza. The new installation in Berlin also features a 20-metre tunnel, and takes inspiration from Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, according to the World Jewish Congress.

Across the street stands Humboldt University. Just a few blocks away, pro-Palestine protesters and students demonstrate and occupy the Faculty of Cultural and Social Sciences, having renamed it Jabaliya Institute in solidarity with the victims in Gaza. Massive protests continue with a heavy police presence as officers eject student protesters forcefully, beating some and even injuring a video journalist.

In Germany, calls for a ceasefire are growing as the Palestinian death toll mounts in Gaza.

At least 45 people were killed in a deadly Israeli air strike in Rafah on Sunday. Videos of burned bodies, including decapitated children, circulated widely on social media, drawing an unusually strong response from the German Foreign Office.

“The images of charred bodies, including children, from the air strike in Rafah are unbearable,” the foreign office said on X. “The exact circumstances must be clarified and an [Israel Defence Forces] investigation launched swiftly. The civilian population in Gaza must urgently be better protected.”

READ: UN official warns of regional spillover as Israel attacks Rafah

As the Israeli war in Gaza goes through its eighth month, Germany grapples with balancing Staatsräson, its historical sense of responsibility towards Israel, with ensuring adherence to international laws and procedures given that over 36,000 Palestinians have been killed. The two contrasting sites in Berlin’s city centre reflect the divide in the country at present and the state’s dichotomy with public opinion.

A poll conducted in March revealed that a vast majority of Germans disapprove of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, saying Tel Aviv’s actions had gone too far despite Germany being the second-largest arms supplier to the occupation state, accounting for 47 per cent of all Israeli arms imports, behind only the United States.

“Some 69 per cent of Germans said that they believe that Israel’s military actions in Gaza are unjustified as they have claimed too many civilian lives,” Anadolu Agency has reported. “Only 18 per cent voiced support for Israel’s ongoing military offensive.”

In a shift from the usual staunch pro-Israel rhetoric, the German Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, Robert Habeck, accused Israel of crossing the line by violating international law with its actions in the Gaza Strip. Habeck said that Germany has repeatedly emphasised that Israel should not have carried out the offensive in Rafah. Urging compliance with international laws, he affirmed that, “The famine, the suffering of the Palestinian population, the attacks in the Gaza Strip are — as we are now seeing in court — incompatible with international law.”

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, meanwhile, has also stressed that ICJ rulings, ordering Israel to halt its military invasion of Rafah, are “binding” and must be implemented.

When ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan announced on 20 May that he was seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, along with three Hamas officials, the German government’s response was rebuked by Tel Aviv. Why? Spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit had hinted that Germany “would abide by the law” and arrest Israeli leaders.

READ: Borrell: EU rejects attempts to label UNRWA a ‘terrorist organisation’

Divisions in the respective responses from other European and Western allies of Israel and Germany’s neighbours were also apparent, despite the EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell noting that EU states “are bound to execute the court’s decisions”. The US was vocal in its criticism of the “equivalence” implied between Hamas and Israeli leaders, describing the warrants as “outrageous”. Austrian and Czech leaders also expressed dismay, as did the UK. Meanwhile, countries like France and Belgium affirmed support for the ICC’s independence and its fight against impunity in all cases.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling, ordering Israel to halt its operations in Rafah and withdraw from the enclave, and Israel’s disregard and violation of the order with an almost immediate deadly strike, later prompted the EU to do the unthinkable as an ally — consider sanctions.

The fact that Spain, Ireland and Norway have just announced their formal recognition of Palestinian statehood illustrates Tel Aviv’s growing isolation.

Israel thus finds itself at a critical juncture. As it faces pressure from within to bring back the hostages safe and sound amid growing distrust of the far-right Netanyahu government, the international community is becoming increasingly critical of its offensive in the Gaza Strip, particularly Rafah, with the spiking Palestinian death toll. Germany’s years of goodwill in the Arab world after being at the forefront of welcoming Syrian refugees is also at stake with its staunch support of Israel and repression of pro-Palestinian activists throughout Israel’s latest assault on Gaza. On the ground, police violence against pro-Palestine activists continues in Germany. Police assaulted Palestinians on Tuesday in Berlin’s Sonnenallee, a predominantly Arab neighbourhood, after the Rafah massacre.

Habeck, Baerbock and German government officials are engaged in their political face-saving act. For Palestinians and Arabs in the country, though, this is definitely too little, too late.

READ: ‘Back to Nazi roots’: Jewish activist decries Germany’s ‘frightening’ crackdown on pro-Palestine voices

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.