Europe’s leaders flounder while bloodshed in Gaza worsens
Many things have been missing since last Saturday’s horrific Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians. Humanity is on holiday. Empathy, the ability to understand other people’s loss and suffering, has become a rare and prized commodity. International law has been missing in action. Yet, aside from the brutality and inhumanity on display, international leadership represents perhaps the most shocking absence.
That the US gives unequivocal, unalloyed support for Israel on such occasions is nothing new. The examples are legion and the US has always given Israel diplomatic protection at the UN Security Council from any attempt to hold it accountable for its violations of international law.
But what is most striking about this past week is the way so many European states have lost sight of their legal and ethical obligations. All understandably condemned the Hamas attacks. Did any European leader not? Yet, when it came to handling Israeli crimes against Palestinian civilians, it was not just silence but active support for Israel to carry out its collective punishment and bombing of civilians.
The Quint statement of Oct. 9 was typical. The grouping of the US, France, Germany, Italy and the UK offered total support for Israel, total blame for Hamas, and expressed no reservations or qualms about international law.
Take Britain. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would give “unequivocal support” to Israel. Support after those attacks, yes; but to give unequivocal support to a state that has a record of violations of international law and war crimes is something else. Such language represents the brightest of green lights to Israeli leaders to do whatever they wish. They clearly noticed. But following him into this position was the leader of the Labour Party, the progressive party of British politics, and probably future prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer. All the initial statements failed to make any reference to international law, a huge break from the past when Israel had bombed Gaza.
President Emmanuel Macron of France was slightly better. “Israel has the right to defend itself by eliminating terrorist groups, including Hamas, through targeted actions, but also by preserving civilian populations because that is the duty of democracies.” He made no reference to obligations under international law.
Many states have also criminalized aspects of showing support for Palestinians. In France, pro-Palestinian marches have been banned and also in Germany. So much for freedom of expression. In Britain the home secretary has tried to ban the waving of Palestinian flags under certain circumstances.
One of the most bizarre and despicable responses was from Oliver Varhelyi, the EU commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement. On Oct. 9, he suspended all EU payments to the Palestinian Authority. This was reversed after many member states protested. But here was the EU about to cut aid to Palestinian civilians just when they needed it most. Rather than suspend or cut, the EU should be looking to increase aid given the need.
What is most striking about this past week is the way so many European states have lost sight of their legal and ethical obligations.
The monumental scale of Israel’s bombardment also caused no rethink. Whole neighborhoods were flattened. The Israeli military said it had dropped 6,000 bombs in five days. Palestinians in Gaza told me that the 2014 war on Gaza was a cakewalk compared with this conflict. More than 580 children have been killed in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in less than one week. This is more than the 551 killed in the 51-day 2014 assault. Israel’s alleged use of white phosphorus shells, a claim made by a human rights group, has also not been condemned.
Ignoring the plight of Palestinians in Gaza reached new levels in the EU responses to the Israeli announcement of a siege of Gaza. Remember, Israel had been blockading it for 16 years to zero international protest or concern, but a siege is far worse. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant said: “I ordered a complete siege of the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel; everything is closed. We are at war with ‘human animals’ and act accordingly.”
A siege. Surely international leaders would condemn or even criticize the imposition of what is a brutal medieval tactic redolent of the era of the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War? Not at all. British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Labour leader Starmer both refused to condemn the imposition of this siege. The Labour Party did revise its position, but not the British government, which has just doubled down on this. Foreign Office sources tell me it is all driven by ministers, not officials.
As for the EU, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, had no hesitation last year in stating that “Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure, especially electricity, are war crimes. Cutting off men, women, children of water, electricity and heating with winter coming — these are acts of pure terror.” She was right, but has gone all coy and shy when it comes to Israel doing the same.
If supporting the siege was off the diplomatic reservation, what about supporting the threat of forcible transfer? This is exactly what the Oct. 13 demand is — insisting Palestinians flee northern Gaza. These 1.1 million could not all leave, not least under bombardment. Some were killed while attempting to flee. What about the elderly, the infirm, the disabled and children? Many Western politicians openly insist Egypt opens its borders for hundreds of thousands of refugees, the very same countries that turn their backs on refugees without hesitation.
Israeli leaders have also kept their intentions secret. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to turn parts of the territory “into rubble” in revenge for a “black day,” and told Palestinians to leave Gaza, yet they cannot flee this prison. One Knesset member, Simcha Rothman, claimed that the main goal of the assault on Gaza is that “a Jewish kid can walk freely in Gaza. If there would be Gaza.” According to one Israeli official, “Gaza will eventually turn into a city of tents. There will be no buildings.”
And where are the calls for de-escalation and ceasefire? The risks of where this all could land up are acute. Many ask, how much worse can this get? The possibilities are off the scale. Most likely the West Bank will descend into even worse levels of bloodshed, with Israel’s National Security dishing out rifles to settlers. Did any international figure speak out about Israel’s obligations here? The most worrying, arguably, would be the Israel-Hezbollah front, but even Syria can be sucked into this, given that Israel has just bombed Damascus and Aleppo airports. Attacks on Western targets in the Middle East or further afield, or violent attacks on synagogues or mosques, cannot be ruled out.
Responsible leadership should see a deluge of diplomacy, not a diplomatic desert. Those with influence must work together to stop the bloodshed, end the bombing and get hostages released, including the Palestinians under siege.
Above all, who is articulating a political horizon? Everyone bar zealots on the Israeli far right and Hamas knows there is no military solution save ethnic cleansing.
As leaders flounder, consider the words of Noi Katzman, who lost her brother: “The most important thing for me, and also for my brother, is that his death will not be used as a justification for killing innocent people.”
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries.