European Union officials like to boast that the bloc has become a real geopolitical power. But the EU’s craven rubber-stamping of Israel’s assault on Gaza shows that it does no more than echo the line coming from Washington.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (2nd L) meets with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (2nd R) and European Parliament president Roberta Metsola (3rd L) in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 13, 2023. (IDF Spokesperson Unit / Handout / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Poor Josep Borrell. Closing off a quick stint in China on October 14, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy told reporters in Beijing that he had asked Chinese officials not to gauge Europeans “through the lens of our relations with others.” The EU “has become a geopolitical power,” the bloc’s top diplomat insisted, apparently ruffled at the Chinese perception that the twenty-seven-nation body often follows the United States’ lead.

But amid the escalating Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the EU is again falling into line behind Washington, cosigning the United States’ blank check for Israeli “self-defense.” In the aftermath of the horrifying Hamas attack on October 7, when 1,400 Israelis were killed and another two hundred taken as hostages, its solidarity with the people of Israel was to be expected. But that Western support is now turning into a rubber-stamp approval for Israel’s punitive assault on Gazans.

Over three thousand Palestinians — the overwhelming majority civilians — have already been killed in Israeli’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, prelude to a widely expected ground invasion that risks provoking a broader regional conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans have already been displaced since the Israeli state issued a sudden October 13 order for people to evacuate to the southern half of the coastal enclave, which, nevertheless, is also being bombarded.

From allusions to “chang[ing] the equation” in Gaza — i.e., fully dismantle Hamas, the de facto governor of the territory since 2007 — and the Israeli right’s unconcealed desire for annexation to calls for Egypt to open its borders for refugees, it seems that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government wants this to be its winner-take-all fight. “We are fighting against human animals,” Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant declared on October 9, announcing the imposition of a “complete siege” of the territory.

Israel’s apparently limitless war goals means the destruction or removal of the over two million Palestinians of Gaza, a territory that has been rightfully compared to the world’s largest “open-air prison.” The death toll in the isolated coastal enclave, to which Israel has cut off supplies of food, water, and electricity, already exceeds the loss of life in the fifty-day war between Hamas and Israel in 2014. Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, has warned that “in the name of self-defence, Israel is seeking to justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing.” Schools, UN-run missions, and fleeing civilians have been targeted by Israeli air strikes. On October 17, a bomb struck the al-Ahli hospital, killing hundreds, for which the Israeli Defense Forces are trying to pin blame on Islamic Jihad militants.

The increasingly dire situation in Gaza is leading to calls for cease-fire from around the world. But this has so far failed to break the lockstep unity of Western powers behind Israel, cemented in the joint communiqué released by leading NATO countries on October 9. “Over the coming days” — reads the joint statement from Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Giorgia Meloni, Rishi Sunak, and Olaf Scholz — “we will remain united and coordinated, together as allies, and as common friends of Israel, to ensure Israel is able to defend itself, and to ultimately set the conditions for a peaceful and integrated Middle East region.”

Doing Nothing

But with Israel stretching that right to “defend itself” to wreak devastation in Gaza, Europe and the United States are still giving little more than pro forma reminders of the need to protect civilians and noncombatants in besieged territory. “I’m confident that Israel is going to do everything in their power to avoid the killing of innocent civilians,” Biden told CBS’s Scott Pelley in an interview on 60 Minutes aired on October 15.

The EU’s do-nothing response was on full display as EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen visited Jerusalem last weekend. “I know that how Israel responds will show that it is a democracy,” Von der Leyen said as she appeared alongside Netanyahu on October 14. Though the bloc’s top official, she made the visit without a mandate from EU bodies, and failed to deliver any serious warnings over Israeli’s campaign against Gaza. “We strongly emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself in line with international and humanitarian law,” the European Council reaffirmed on October 15, in perhaps the closest thing to a unified EU stance.

“There has been a lot of hesitation, unpreparedness, and errors” in the EU’s response to the unfolding crisis, says Manon Aubry, a member of the European Parliament for France Insoumise and cochair of the parliament’s left-wing caucus.

“Expressing solidarity toward the Israeli people, who have been the victims of this gruesome attack, obviously had to be done,” Aubry said of Von der Leyen’s visit. “But giving a de facto blank check to Netanyahu to indiscriminately strike Gazan civilians? The right to self-defense is not a right to seek vengeance. Ultimately, Ursula von der Leyen gave credibility to a right for vengeance by having nothing to say for the Palestinian civilians who are currently being massacred.”

But what could the EU really do to “contain” Israeli excesses in the days and weeks ahead? Netanyahu seems to have little concern for European remonstrances — and knows that Israel’s real guarantor is the United States. This makes it all the more surprising that European leaders have responded to the present crisis in a manner so fixated on gaining credit with Israel’s prime minister. Germany and France, the EU’s leading powers, have even gone so far as to snuff out expressions of solidarity with Gazans and Palestinians, banning protests and rallies in a shocking attack on civil liberties and freedom of expression.

“It’s time to call a spade a spade,” Aubry told Jacobin, calling for EU leaders to denounce “war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza in the same way that the European Union rightfully denounced the crimes perpetrated by Hamas . . . the total blockade of Gaza is a war crime, targeting civilians is war crime, using white phosphorous gas is war crime. The European Union should be positioning itself as a force for dialogue and call for a cease-fire. [The EU] must use any access it has with Netanyahu to call for this. What’s the alternative? Erase Gaza?”

Double Standards

It’s likely wishful thinking to expect a rupture among Western powers. And until then, the Gaza crisis has provided another reminder of just how empty EU leaders’ calls for the bloc’s “strategic autonomy” from the United States really are. Faced with the latest revival of this decades-old conflict, one that encapsulates the broader gulf between the Arab world and the West, the EU has lined up behind the United States’ unquestioning support for Israel. For people across the region and elsewhere in the so-called Global South, whom the West has been trying to enlist in its support of Ukrainians against Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion, this position can only justify those who accuse Europe of double standards: sovereignty and independence for Ukrainians; a limitless right for Israel to pummel Gazans and bury the possibility of Palestinian statehood.

“We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South,” one shrewd “senior G7 diplomat” told the Financial Times. “All the work we have done with the Global South [over Ukraine] has been lost. . . . Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”

This is a gulf that Putin is cleverly exploiting. On October 16, a Russian-sponsored UN security council resolution calling for a cease-fire failed, because of its lack of a condemnation of Hamas. Should that language change, bringing more abstentionists in the fifteen-member committee to agree, will Western powers block a resolution that squarely calls for Israel to halt its devastating punitive war? Assuming the United States likely wouldn’t vote in favor, would France? The EU’s sole permanent member on the council, France, had the wherewithal back in 2003 to call for a halt on the United States’ war for regime change in Iraq, an invasion that devastated a whole region and whose aftershocks are still being felt today. Today, it looks far from certain that France will act as a similar force for restraint.

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