Ursula von der Leyen responds to protest letter by EU staff on Israel-Gaza war

Ursula von der Leyen responds to protest letter by EU staff on Israel-Gaza war
Demonstration in Brussels in support of Palestine, 22 October, credit: Belga

An open letter last Friday to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen protesting against her statements on the Israel-Gaza war received a rebuttal yesterday.

The letter was leaked to media and published on X (formerly Twitter), without the signatures. It had reportedly gathered 842 signatures of former and current EU staff, among them diplomatic and foreign policy staff.

In the letter, they took issue with the Commission president and claimed that she misrepresented the EU position when she visited Israel and expressed her solidarity with the country after Hamas' surprise terrorist attack on 7 October.

Asked whether EU staff are allowed to publish articles or petitions that concern the work of the EU without the approval of the hierarchy, a Commission spokesperson replied at the press conference on Monday (23 October) that it requires prior authorisation. He did not clarify if such authorisation had been given in this case.

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental principle in the European Commission and staff members have the right to benefit of it,” he explained. “In general, the Commission is proud of the principle and of being a workplace where everyone can express his or her opinion.” This was not the first-time staff has signed petitions and apparently the Commission is “tolerant to those who act in good faith”.

Polarised narratives

In the three-pages long letter, the signatories strongly condemned both Hamas terrorist attack against Israel and the “disproportionate reaction” by Israel against the “Palestinian civilians trapped in the Gaza Strip”. According to the letter, the latter is considered by “many observers a war crime”. The signatories are concerned about the Commission’s “unconditional support” to one of the sides in the war.

They protested against the “indifference” to what they call an “on-going massacre” of civilians and recalled the news they heard about the hospital in Gaza which was “bombed with many casualties”. Since then, evidence presented by Israel and accepted by other countries showed that the explosion most likely was caused by a misfired rocket launched by a terrorist organization in Gaza.

“If Israel does not stop immediately, the whole Gaza and its inhabitants will be erased from the planet,” the letter warns, and accuses the Commission for taking on the premises “of polarized narratives.” The letter ends with a call to the Commission and its president to work for a cease-fire and the protection of the civilian lives, leading to a two-state solution.

When first asked about the letter, the Commission replied that “the Commission is always ready to engage with staff members and with citizens, to listen to their views and explain its position”. At the press conference, deputy spokesperson Arianna Podesta explained at length the President’s position, based on her recent speeches in Israel and to the European institutions.

President von der Leyen does not accept the narrative in the letter. At her meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, she made clear that “Hamas alone is responsible for what is happening. Hamas' acts have nothing to do with the legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, the horror that Hamas has unleashed is only bringing more suffering upon innocent Palestinians.”

Threat to both Israel and Palestinians

“Hamas is a threat not only to Israel, but also a threat to the Palestinian people. Therefore, again, our call, very loud and clear, is to release the hostages and stop taking people as human shields.” The President has also said on several occasions that, “there is no contradiction in standing in solidarity with Israel and acting on the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people.”

The humanitarian needs have been a key element of the Commission’s actions, during these last weeks as in the past years, according to the spokesperson. In a phone call with the UN Secretary General, the President announced that the Commission would immediately triple the humanitarian aid envelope for Gaza to over €75 million.

In a speech to the European Parliament, she called on humanitarian aid urgently being enabled to reach the Gaza Strip. To this end, the Commission launched an EU Humanitarian Air Bridge to Egypt, to bring life-saving supplies to humanitarian organisations on the ground in Gaza. She recalled that, “The EU has always been the largest international donor to Palestine. And this will not change.”

As regards the hospital blast in Gaza, the President said that the scenes were “horrifying and distressing”. “There is no excuse for hitting a hospital full of civilians. All facts need to be established, and those responsible must be held accountable. In this tragic hour, we must all redouble our efforts to protect civilians from the fury of this war,” a call directed to both Israel and Hamas.

If there was any doubt, she has reiterated that, “the Commission supports Israel's right to defend itself against the Hamas terrorists, in full respect of international humanitarian law.”

She stands behind the European Council conclusions on EU’s common position. “We remain committed to a lasting and sustainable peace based on the two-state solution through reinvigorated efforts in the Middle East Peace Process. We underline the need to engage broadly with the legitimate Palestinian authorities as well as regional and international partners to prevent further escalation.”

Call for humanitarian pause

On Monday, a Foreign Affairs Council took place in Luxembourg, chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. The ministers discussed the situation in Israel and the region, following “Hamas’ brutal and indiscriminate terrorist attacks across Israel and the events unfolding in Gaza”.

While supporting Israel’s right to self-defense within the limits of international law, he underlined the need to address the humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip and increase the amount and speed of humanitarian aid to the area. He seemed unaffected by the latest footages and recordings disclosed by Israel about the atrocities committed by Hamas during its terrorist attack.

At the following press conference, Borrell stopped short of calling for a cease-fire but warned against Russia taking advantage of the Israel-Gaza war.

Asked about the meaning of a “humanitarian pause”, as proposed by the European Parliament, he described it as less than a cease-fire but a temporary interruption of the hostilities to facilitate the delivery of the aid. A pause would also give enough time for the civilians in the north of the area to move to the south for their own safety. The issue will be discussed at next European Council this week.

A pause could also give time for talks about the release of the Israeli hostages abducted to Gaza. Until now, Hamas has only released two persons with foreign passports and two elderly Israeli women.  For a release of the rest, Israel would have to agree to a prisoner’s exchange and release Palestinians in Israeli prisons. For the time being, Hamas keeps the hostages to delay an Israeli ground offensive.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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