EU leaders united in supporting Israel, rhetoric and focus differ

EU leaders united in supporting Israel, rhetoric and focus differ
Pictures of the persons abducted, missing, or killed in the Hamas attack were displayed on empty seats in the Smolarz Auditorium at Tel Aviv University

EU leaders representing the European institutions and the member states are expressing their solidarity with Israel and its right to defend itself in compliance with international law following the surprise terrorist attack by Hamas on 7 October.

The war continues with increasing casualties on both sides and a looming Israeli ground offensive into the Gaza Strip to take out Hamas and dismantle its military capacity and infrastructure. The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is precarious. In the north, there have been skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon that easily could escalate to a multifront war.

On Tuesday evening, European Council President Charles Michel convened an extraordinary European Council meeting by video conference to discuss the consequences for the EU of the unfolding situation, which might have spill-over effects on its internal security, and agree on a common position.

In fact, the EU had already a common position as expressed by Josep Borrell, EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on behalf of the member states. In recent Foreign affairs Council and European Council meetings, EU ministers reiterated Israel’s right to self-defence, in full respect of international humanitarian law.

“The international community has to use this critical moment – this could be an awakening moment – in order to reengage with the problem of Palestine and Israel,“ High Representative Josep Borrell said after one of the meetings.

“We made a clear distinction between Hamas the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority. We consider Hamas a terrorist organisation but the Palestinian authority is another thing, the Palestinian authority is our partner. We do not deal with Hamas but, yes, we support, we deal and we work together with the Palestinian authority.”

Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for EU’s foreign policy, explained to The Brussels Times today that the written statement issued by the members of the European Council last Sunday (15 October) summarized the EU’s common position and added that there was no need for another written statement at the following meeting on Tuesday.

Judging by the recent speeches by European Council President Charles Michel, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell, they differ in both rhetoric and focus. Von der Leyen is the only of them who has visited Israel since the war started and met bereaved families.

“Hamas' terror is also bringing immense suffering to the Palestinian people. It is Hamas who are the terrorists, not the Palestinian people. So, we have to care for the Palestinian people and their humanitarian needs,“ she said after the videoconference on Tuesday.

“There is no contradiction in standing in solidarity with Israel and acting for the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians.”

During the videoconference, the EU leaders received the shocking news about an explosion at a hospital in Gaza which allegedly claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. Asked about the explosion, von der Leyen replied that she just had been informed about the incident and needed confirmation before commenting.

Charles Michel replied that an attack against civilian infrastructure would not be in line with international law. WHO immediately issued a statement condemning “the attack” on the hospital. In fact, the explosion was caused by a failed rocket launch by the Islamic Jihad according to an investigation by the Israeli military based on evidence published the following morning.

"In war, truth is the first casualty." The issue of the spread of disinformation, information manipulation and illegal content online has often been raised by the EU in the context of Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. Also, in the Israel-Hamas war EU leaders warned against disinformation.

On Wednesday morning, both Borrell and von der Leyen spoke in the European Parliament.  Borrell spoke in his native language Spanish to avoid any misunderstanding and condemned both the terrorist attacks and the civilian deaths in Gaza, apparently not being sure about the cause of the explosion at the hospital.

“Because condemning one tragedy should not prevent us from condemning another. Wars are atrocious and what we have seen, well, what we have explained without still knowing who to attribute responsibility for the massacre in that hospital, is another of the horrible faces of war.”

For the speeches by von der Leyen and Borrell in the European Parliament on Wednesday, click here and here respectively.

At today’s press conference, a Commission spokesperson confirmed that the first two flights with essential humanitarian financed by the EU are arriving in Egypt and welcomed the opening of the border crossing at Rafah and the free access to deliver it into the Gaza Strip

Does EU’s solidarity with Israel imply that it condones or accepts its war objective to destroy Hamas and its military capacity despite the heavy toll in civilian casualties it will cause?

“We need to stop Hamas and its indiscriminate fire of missiles against Israel,” Peter Stano, the spokesperson replied, “and ensure the release of the Israeli hostages.”

He added that there is “no place for Hamas” – unless they would surrender, do a U-turn and denounce their terrorism as other terrorist organisations like the Irish IRA did. That is hardly likely considering their extreme Islamic ideology and the brutality they showed at the surprise attack against cities and villages in southern Israel.

“Hamas has been boycotting any attempts to make peace,” Borrell explained in his speech. “They have opposed United Nations and Arab League resolutions, which opened a path for a possible peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Hamas wants to make Israel disappear. It doesn't want peace, it wants destruction. It is a terrorist organisation that must be fought.”

“But it is also making it impossible for the Palestinians to achieve a just peace with its actions. They are also victims of Hamas. And for this reason, we cannot hold the entire Palestinian people, and all the inhabitants of Gaza, responsible for the terrorist action of Hamas.”

Hamas has been ruling the Gaza Strip since 2007, following the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from the Strip in 2005. After winning elections in 2006, it rejected the Oslo Peace Accords on a peace solution with Israel, clashed with its political opponent Fatah and took over the power in the Strip. All attempts to agree on a Palestinian unity government or power-sharing arrangement have failed.

Instead of caring for the development of the Gaza Strip and the needs of the people there who voted for them, Hamas invested in smuggling weapons and building up a military capacity to fire rockets against Israel. The victory in democratically held elections gave them some legitimacy but today it would not win any elections in Gaza.

Its rule resulted in recurrent rounds of hostilities which culminated in the attack which took Israel by surprise and off-guard following its internal crisis over a controversial judicial reform.

Over the years, Israel also thought that it could “manage” the conflict, live with the recurring eruption of hostilities and buying temporary calm by cash flows to Hamas and granting work permits to workers from Gaza. It was also a convenient pretext for the government to keep Gaza and the West Bank separated and not relaunch the peace process.

The current far-right government with extremist coalition partners aiming at annexation of the West Bank took it a step further by not enforcing the law against violent settlers and ignoring the security along the border with the Gaza Strip. Its only concern since it took power last December was pushing through the judicial overhaul despite mass protests and the negative impact on Israel’s deterrence.

European Parliament's position

In a resolution adopted on Thursday afternoon with 500 votes in favour, 21 against and 24 abstentions, the European Parliament condemned the terrorist attack against Israel, expressed its support for Israel and stressed the need to “eliminate the terrorist organisation Hamas”. The vote reflected the different opinions among the EU member states.

The Parliament called for a “humanitarian pause”, de-escalation and full respect of international humanitarian law but rejected a proposal by the Left and Greens’ groups to call for a ceasefire. The MEPs expressed concern about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza and urged Egypt and Israel to cooperate with the international community to open humanitarian corridors to the Gaza Strip.

As regards the hospital blast in Gaza, the Parliament called for an independent investigation under international law to establish if “it was a deliberate attack, and thus a war crime”, and called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

Contrary to the Council and the European External Action Service, the Parliament strongly condemned Iran’s support to Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. MEPs reiterated their call to include the entirety of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah on the EU list of terrorist groups and demanded investigations into the role of Iran and other countries in financing and supporting terrorism in the region.

Note: The article has been updated to include the European Parliament's vote on the war and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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