Israel-Palestine war: Europe’s shameful complicity in Israel’s war on Gaza
Governments have failed to condemn Israel’s disproportionate retaliation and the collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population
The latest stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict in Gaza has revealed an unexpected moral bankruptcy on the part of the European Union’s institutions and almost all of its member states.
In the past, Europe used to make efforts to mitigate Washington’s blind pro-Israel stance and to advance the Palestinian cause, such as during the drafting of the 2003 Road Map to Peace. Two decades later, the EU and its top shareholders are barely recognisable.
The last 20 years of the Israel-Palestine conflict have included the Second Intifada, Israel’s destructive wars on Gaza with massive Palestinian civilian casualties, thousands of home demolitions, and creeping annexation through settlement growth in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Gaza has also been subject to a harsh blockade since 2007.
Under these circumstances, logic would dictate that European support for Palestinians should have increased. Instead, Europe has become increasingly pro-Israel, or in the best case, indifferent to the Palestinian cause.
It speaks volumes that in the last two decades, the only significant EU measure has been – brace yourselves – to request a change in the labelling of Israeli products, ensuring that goods produced in illegal settlements are labelled as such. This was less than a slap on the wrist, but it still sparked Israeli indignation.
The EU’s political discourse on Palestinian rights has slowly adjusted to Israel’s increasingly far-right narrative, with dissent and different opinions silenced or strongly criticised by mainstream media.
The mere use of the word “occupation”, or any objection to Israeli violence, is equated with antisemitism. This charge is systematically used for character assassinations of pro-Palestinian politicians and activists through complacent media. Jeremy Corbyn, the former British Labour leader, is a prime example.
Other European parties across the political spectrum have followed the same path. A complete metamorphosis has taken place. Many explanations could be provided, but ultimately, European politicians stand with Israel because they seem to get in less trouble that way.
Still, no one could have imagined what European leaders would do after the events of 7 October. This is not to criticise their strong condemnations of the 7 October attacks by Palestinian fighters, nor the support they extended to Israel.
Rather, my criticism is addressed towards the past two decades of European passivity towards the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and their continuing reluctance to deal with the issue of the Israeli occupation.
This conflict did not begin on 7 October.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had to shake the Europeans from their guilty torpor by reminding them this week that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum”. He said: “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”
For these common-sense words, Israel demanded Guterres’s resignation.
Meanwhile, a procession of European leaders have rightly travelled to Israel to express their solidarity, including the presidents of the European Commission and European Parliament, the German chancellor, the French president, the British prime minister, and the Italian prime minister. But we have not seen a similar procession of visits to Ramallah as Israeli bombs continue to rain down on Gaza.
On the European moral scale, Israeli pain is rated higher than Palestinian pain – and it appears nothing is going to change that. The European position is that Hamas committed an unprovoked act of terrorism, while Israel is just exercising its legitimate right to self-defence.
However, Israel’s right to self-defence must be contextualised within its role as an occupying power for more than five decades, during which it has harassed, humiliated and killed countless Palestinians. This is the point Guterres was attempting to convey in his heavily criticised remark, especially to western democracies, those champions of the rules-based world order.
It is worth remembering that when Palestinians last held a mass peaceful protest, the 2018 Great March of Return, which followed the provocative US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, the Israeli army fired upon thousands of Palestinians gathered at the Gaza fence. Israeli snipers killed more than 200 Palestinians, including medics and journalists, and wounded thousands more.
This was a despicable act, a crime – but no condemnation came from western democracies.
Today, European leaders have remained silent amid Israel’s disproportionate bombardment of Gaza, while implicitly condoning the murderous language being used by Israeli officials – including President Isaac Herzog, who has said there are no innocent civilians in Gaza. “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” he said, tacitly justifying their collective punishment.
This is an especially outrageous statement coming from a descendant of the same people who suffered the most horrific collective victimisation of the 20th century: the Holocaust. It is equally outrageous for European leaders to have remained silent at Herzog’s words.
After 1,400 Israelis were killed in the 7 October attack, the Israeli flag was projected on European building facades as a legitimate show of solidarity. But despite the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians, with more than 8,000 already killed, we have seen no similar official gestures.
Of course, thousands of Palestinian flags are being hoisted by European citizens, largely unreported by mainstream media, across European capitals. People are doing what their governments will not: condemning Israel’s disproportionate retaliation and the collective punishment of Gaza’s Palestinian population through indiscriminate bombing and the cutting off of water, electricity, fuel and food deliveries.
All European institutions have been able to utter, amid heavy public pressure, are bland exhortations for Israel to abide by international law. This is too little, too late – and too hypocritical.