The war in Gaza represents a new political cleavage in Europe, one that cuts across at least three groupings of EU countries, marks a widening gap between government stances and public opinion, and in parallel dramatically increases antisemitism and islamophobia.
Any new iteration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just another Middle Eastern conflict for Europe. It carries an “Israeli effect” (Farneti, 2015), meaning the potential to polarize European public opinion as none other in terms of identity politics. This is due to the presence of a Jewish state in the midst of an Arab-Muslim majoritarian region, which is a direct consequence of European responsibilities linked to both its colonial past in the region – mostly British and French colonialism stretching back to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accords – and the Shoah, marking the collective historical responsibility of European member states for the persecution of their respective Jewish minorities during WWII.
This past and the sense of historical responsibility that ensues from it violently clashes against the EU aspiration to stand for universal human rights and freedoms in a post-colonial world. As a consequence, between two opposing self-images of Europe: one identifying the EU as new normative and disinterested post-colonial actor, the other as the natural heir of a century-long history of European domination in the Global South and the historical origin of antisemitism.
The European Union had not seen such deep divisions over a major foreign policy crisis since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, with the notorious division between an allegedly “old” Europe (France, Germany), critical of the attack, and a “new” Europe (Eastern Europe, beside the UK) firmly aligned with Washington.
Split in three camps
On October 26th, at a vote over an immediate ceasefire at the UN General Assembly, which passed with 120 votes, 14 votes against and 45 abstentions, Europe split in three camps. The Resolution called for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” and firmly rejected “any attempts at the forced transfer of the Palestinian civilian population.” Spain, Belgium and Portugal voted in favor of the Resolution, with Spain even going as far as declaring possible unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood, in line with what Sweden did in 2014.
Among those who voted against the Resolution, together with the US and Israel, were Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Croatia, for whom Israel’s right to self-defense should be unrestrained. Several other European members, including Italy, France and Germany, abstained. This can be considered a failure of the European Foreign and Security Policy, while, in contrast, European countries did stick together over recent key foreign policy dossiers, including Ukraine and Iran.
Notably, it took the EU three weeks after the October 7th Hamas attacks in Israel, which killed over 1,200 Israelis and led to the kidnapping of over 120 people, to agree on a common position on the Gaza war. This comprised the condemnation of the Hamas attacks, the support of Israel’s right to self-defense, the deploration of the loss of Palestinian lives and concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.
Pause, pauses or ceasefire
The challenges in coming to an agreement over the language of the joint statement concerning “humanitarian pause” or “pauses” signaled the range of deeply felt positions within the Union. Those arguing in favor of a humanitarian pause, first and foremost Spain, Ireland and Belgium, thought of a pause as leading to a permanent ceasefire, while EU members in favor of several, short humanitarian pauses, including the UK and Germany, were firmly re-affirming Israel’s right to continue the war. In this spirit, technical pauses were intended for quick humanitarian relief efforts, which would not give Hamas too much time to regroup and move additional weapon supplies through the tunnel structure. Eventually, European countries adopted the latter position, choosing “humanitarian pauses” over a request for a permanent ceasefire.
This was in line with US preferences and the UN Resolution 2712 asking for ‘urgent and extended humanitarian pauses’ in the Strip adopted on November 15th. The Resolution was adopted with Russian, American and British abstentions, with Russia calling for a ceasefire and not a series of pauses, increasingly signaling a critical albeit not actively pro-peace stance vis-à-vis Israel, and with the US and the UK condemning the non-attribution of responsibility to Hamas for initiating the conflict in the text. Despite pressures from, Spain, Ireland, Belgium and Malta at the mid-December EU summit in Brussels, due to internal divisions there was no joint statement asking for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Widening cleavages across Europe
Political parties in Europe reacted to the conflict by turning it into a domestic issue: at its mid-October summit, while the European People’s Party (EPP) unequivocally condemned Hamas’ terrorist actions and pledged unconditional support to Israel, right-wing and popular parties across Europe also seized the opportunity to step up their anti-immigration and-Islamic rhetoric portraying Hamas as a terrorist threat targeting Europe as well. Marco Zanni, the European Parliament leader of the Italian League party, described the Hamas attack as an act of war “on the entire West”, confusing and mis-representing Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood Palestinian branch with a national liberation agenda, with other international Islamist terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, with a global outreach.
European radical right-wing parties are exploiting the Hamas-Israeli conflict to boost their coalition – the “Identity and Democracy (ID) group” – at the June 2024 European elections, where the block is expected to become the fourth largest. However, thus far, the ID block does not display a great degree of unity within its ranks on the Gaza war, with the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) distancing itself from the current unlimited support to Israel.
On the other side of the political spectrum, 32 European socialist parties, gathered at the last European Socialist Parties Congress in Spain in mid-November, have struggled to take a unified stance on Gaza, ending up merely supporting the loose concept of “humanitarian pauses” and deploring the “humanitarian tragedy”. Major strains persist within the Left: some parties decry the Israeli war on Gaza as a massive form of collective punishment, some parties label Hamas a terrorist group – the French Socialists, the Greens and the French Communist Party – while other do not, such as the radical left-wing party La France Insoumise. As Europe has not drawn a red line on what would constitute an irrefutable violation of international humanitarian law by Israel, different political movements across Europe will continue to condemn single Israeli actions in a random order.
In sum, while the Russian invasion had boosted European unity, the Gaza war is not only exposing internal rifts, it is openly displaying how Europe remains a payer rather than a player in the most significant cleavage in the Levant. It is also showing Western inconsistencies in failing to adopt the same standards as in Ukraine in defense of an aggressed population, and this, in the eyes of the Global South, further diminishes European credibility and standing.
The second cleavage is the one within European countries between their leaders and government and their public opinion. In particular, in the UK, on the one hand the government has displayed staunch support of Israel, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, without calling for a ceasefire. Even the Labour party, distancing itself from a recent past in which the party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn had been accused of not having strong pro-Palestinian views and holding antisemitic ones as well, is now advocating Israel’s unrestrained self-defense rights. On the other hand, there have been peaceful pro-Palestinian rallies in London every Saturday, which some ministers have depicted as “hate marches”, with an overwhelming majority of the population – almost 90% – supporting a ceasefire. In the UK, a sound 33% oppose Israel’s military actions and push for a ceasefire (YouGov poll, November 15, 2023).
Similarly, in France, which is still coming to terms with the killing of 35 French citizens on October 7th and the kidnapping of dozens of them, remains the European country with the largest Jewish and Arab populations, where apparently exogeneous events rapidly translate into domestic issues and alienate significant portions of the population, stirring societal tensions. To curb those tensions, French President Emmanuel Macron imposed a ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations early on, which further polarized French society, as it clearly represented an infringement on freedom of assembly. According to a poll from early November, conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion, 25% of the French still side with Israel, as compared to 14% with the Palestinian Authority, but a great majority – almost two-thirds – feel sympathy for neither side, confirming the findings of a survey conducted just before the outbreak of the current conflict, whereby most European citizens declared themselves indifferent to the Israel-Palestine conflict, with peaks as high as 73% in Germany.
Strikingly, a similar ban was adopted in Germany, which extends to clothing items including the kefiya. This was justified on the basis of raison d’état, given that, since WWII, Germany has endogenized Israel’s right of existence as a domestic issue: something that also applies to most Western countries, those comprising the vast majority of the then 58 UN Member-states supporting Resolution 181, which in 1947 foresaw the creation of the State of Israel to grant Jews a safe haven. Nonetheless, Europe’s collective responsibility is waning over time and EU citizens are growing impatient over Israel’s periodical massive use of force towards the Palestinians, as an increasing number of polls shows. Today, only 35% of Germans back the government’s unconditional support of Israel, according to a recent poll by the Allensbach Institute, with a similar percentage lamenting Israel has “too little understanding for its Arab neighbors and unjustly occupies (Palestinian) territories”.
The government-public opinion cleavage seems to be particularly acute in the German case in marked contrast to the primary historical responsibility borne by Berlin, but it also shows a growing trend within Europe of a weaker identification with Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, similar to that concurrently experienced by US Jews.
Looking at Italy’s case, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, at a summit in Cairo in late October, depicted the Hamas attack as an anti-Western action aiming to cause a rift between Judeo-Christian and Muslim societies – a “trap to be avoided”. She seemed, however, more cautious in following the line of her government ally Matteo Salvini in calling for a mass demonstration “to defend the West” in Milan on November 4th. On the opposite side, the left-leaning Democratic Party chaired by the Jewish leader Elly Schlein clearly stated her party’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself, clinging to the party’s long-standing Atlanticist commitment, but this time distancing itself from its ally, the much more vocally pro-Palestinian Five Star Movement. Notwithstanding the common position of solidarity with Israel shared by most political parties, public opinion polls (IPSOS, November 7, 2023) report that 58% of Italian citizens see Israel’s offensive in Gaza as a “humanitarian catastrophe”, more in line with the Catholic Church calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, while only 17% consider the risk of Islamist terrorist attack in Europe to be high or alarming.
Similar data collected in other European countries describe a situation in which public opinions are not in line with their governments and are much more concerned with the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli attack than with the threat represented by Hamas.
What role for the EU
The EU altogether is not expected to play a major role in the resolution of the Gaza war nor is it provisionally able to act as a broker towards a ceasefire. However, its current inability to adopt a unified position on the conflict is likely to impair the single essential contribution it will be able to provide in the postwar scenario, that is as a major contributor of Palestinian aid in the reconstruction process.
As EU members repeat their hollow “two state solution” mantra, it would be better for them to spell out, even behind the European Council’s closed doors, which scenario they jointly wish for in the aftermath of the war, and what restrictions or sanctions they might consider imposing on sections of Israeli society resistant to peaceful coexistence, in primis Israeli settlers in the West Bank: a measure backed by EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen but not yet agreed upon by all EU member states.
Otherwise, Europe will find itself, once again, paying and rebuilding a weak and inhabitable Gaza Strip likely to be razed to the ground once again at the next round of violence.