Gaza war taking a toll on European power and unity

Gaza war taking a toll on European power and unity

Gaza war taking a toll on European power and unity
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell revealed the helplessness of the 27-country political union. (AFP)
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Several years ago, I attended a public meeting with representatives of the Israeli Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of more than 600 families, all of which have lost an immediate family member to the ongoing conflict. It works tirelessly to advance the cause of sustainable peace between the two peoples.

A number of students and academic staff at the university where the event took place called for a boycott of the event as it was, in their opinion, a manifest “normalization” of the abnormal relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Robi Damelin, a prominent member of the organization who lost her son to the conflict, begged everyone to listen to their message of peace and reconciliation instead of importing the conflict into their societies abroad.

Europe’s response to the current round of extreme violence between Israel and Palestinians is sad evidence that Damelin’s plea has fallen on deaf ears. Not only is there no united front to demand a halt to the carnage that has been taking place since Oct. 7, but too many are also taking sides in a very oversimplified version of events in the Middle East. The conflict is not only being imported into European societies, but it is becoming dangerously embedded in them.

Splits over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are understandable and only to be expected in pluralist societies, but the resulting raw emotions and the perceived need to take the side of one of the protagonists, instead of supporting peace, reconciliation and coexistence, which would serve both, present something of an enigma. The deep discord over this long and intractable conflict prevails both among governing bodies and in the streets in its full ferocity — and both feed off the other.

Official Europe, including the EU institutions, are at a loss about how to form a coherent policy that is aimed at having a meaningful impact on the war in Gaza and bringing it to an end. In a recent article, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell revealed the helplessness of this 27-country political union, admitting that Europe’s influence on world affairs stems primarily from its soft power, due to its lack of tools of hard power. In times of a raging war such as the current one in Gaza, Europe’s inability to exert influence is telling, as it relies on Washington, which has both soft and hard power, and essentially follows its guidance.

With the UK no longer part of the EU, things are complicated even further. For instance, the Western vote in the UN Security Council on a call for an immediate ceasefire was split between France, which supported it, the US, which vetoed it, and the UK’s decision to abstain; hardly a demonstration of unity. At least Borrell accepted collective responsibility and declared: “The war in Gaza is the outcome of a collective political and moral failure, for which the Israeli and Palestinian people are paying a high price. This price will continue to increase if we fail to act.” Will they learn anything when this round of bloodshed comes to an end? One has strong doubts.

Most European countries and EU institutions are struggling to react with any sense of conviction or coherence to the worst outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians since the 1948 war. Understandably, Europe, as everyone else, was caught by surprise by the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and most rightly expressed sympathy for Israel. Nevertheless, when the war also turned into the mass killing of civilians in Gaza by the Israeli military, Europe failed to respond in accordance with the changing nature of this horrendous round of hostilities and with its own declared values.

The conflict is not only being imported into European societies, but it is becoming dangerously embedded in them

Yossi Mekelberg

It was caught between continuing to support Israel in achieving its war objectives and the need to respond to the increasingly very angry demands among its own people for their countries to lean on Israel to stop this war or at least to change its tactics to spare innocent lives.

Marches in support of a ceasefire took place in London, Paris, Lisbon, Warsaw and other European cities as the devastation of Israel’s bombardment and its resultant humanitarian disaster began to unfold and worsen by the day. For now, European governments may be publicly expressing their concerns overs these developments in Gaza, but either concede that they do not have the faintest idea how to influence Israel directly or through the UNSC to agree to a ceasefire, or they tacitly support the Israeli narrative that it is capable of eliminating Hamas if it is only given the time to do so.

This is creating a massive rift between governments and people in Europe. And more so as Europe is not committing itself, when the war is eventually over, to a significant role in the reconstruction of Gaza, in stopping the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank, in containing settler violence or in bringing a fair and just peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Admittedly, some of those protesting against the war have demonstrated their antisemitism, as is the case in some academic circles, and have also questioned the right of Israel to exist: two phenomena that should be entirely rejected. But this cannot take away from the genuine concerns in many European countries for the fate of ordinary Palestinians, who are paying the ultimate price for a crime in which they are innocent of any involvement.

Among European politicians, there is an awareness that, come the next elections, there might be a price for their inaction at the ballot box. However, this has hardly led to a change in any government’s attitude to the war in Gaza, which can partly be attributed to the rise of populist right-wing politics and its rejection of migrants and multiculturalism. This faction often sees these protests not only as supportive of the innocent victims of this conflict, but erroneously also as an expression of sympathy with radical Islam and left-wing politics.

Consequently, the war in Gaza has not only entered deep into the European discourse, but it has become a litmus test of whether the continent can live up to what Borrell claims is its global role, which “stems principally from how consistently we defend universal principles and values,” and that “we Europeans must be among the keepers of international and humanitarian law.” Thus far, this has not been the case and, instead, the continent’s leaders have marginalized Europe as a power in international affairs and sown discord in its societies.

• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg

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