Time to recalibrate EU’s partisan position on Israel/Palestine

Opinion by Wadih Al-Asmar and Rasmus Alenius Boserup

Read it on EU Observer.

The latest violence in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories is horrifying. Hamas’ brutal and indiscriminate killing, maiming and kidnapping of unarmed civilians is unforgivable. So are the Israeli army’s vengeful and indiscriminate bombings of civilians. Alongside leading Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights organizations, EuroMed Rights has, time and again, pointed out that the Israeli repression of the rights of the Palestinians violates several international legal standards and is likely to breed radicalisation and violence.

As an example of this radicalisation, last year, Israeli voters elected one of the most anti-Palestinian governments in the country’s history, and a blatant ethnic cleansing rhetoric has been openly circulating in the political discourse. In Gaza, the Palestinian residents have languished under an illegal blockade for the past 16 years, which has turned the strip into an ‘open air prison’. Sealed from the world by the Israeli authorities, over-populated and plagued with 45 percent unemployment, Gaza was already declared unliveable before this latest wave of violence.

The Israeli government has systematically tightened the screw over the past months. Prior to the latest outbreak of violence, 200 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank in 2023 alone. Attacks from settlers confident never to be pursued by the Israeli justice are on the rise. Record numbers of Palestinian homes are demolished and replaced by Israeli settlements. With these premises, the recent indiscriminate retaliation shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Europe’s partisan position

Following Hamas’ attack, declarations of support to Israel poured in. The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen affirmed that the EU “fully support Israel’s right to defend itself” while German chancellor Olaf Scholz declared “the only place is by Israel’s side”. While it is clear that Hamas’ violence should be condemned, it should also be clear that attacks against civilians on both sides are a breach to international humanitarian law and all perpetrators should face prosecution.

Nevertheless, some EU member states moved beyond expressing support for Israel and took moves to halt assistance to Palestinians. Initially, the EU also looked poised to take this course. EU commissioner Olivér Várhelyi declared that “the European Commission was putting its full development portfolio under review.”

Considering the many missed opportunities to hold Israel accountable for its violations and pursue a real peace process in the past, the ongoing events should be a wakeup call for the EU. Today’s grave situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories offers a unique chance for Europe to demonstrate adherence to its core values of human rights and democracy. The events should prompt the EU to change attitude away from the past tactical preference of collaboration with Israel. Instead, it should adopt an approach rooted in human rights and International Humanitarian Law.

A chance for a new European approach?

Fortunately, there are dissenting voices within the EU. The head of EU diplomacy Josep Borrell recently backtracked and accused Israel of breaking international law by imposing a total blockade of Gaza. He called on the international community to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian population and called out Israel’s continued violation of International Humanitarian Law and human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The declarations of the head of EU diplomacy offer an opportunity to break away from the EU’s past inadequate policies on Palestine. It offers an opportunity for the EU to lead the international community towards an approach that would both de-escalate the conflict in the short term and address its root causes in the mid- and long term. Such a work requires that the EU strictly adhere to international humanitarian law and to human rights, by strongly pushing for the end of the total siege on Gaza, where the situation is getting more alarming by the minute.

As evidence of the use of banned weapons multiply, the EU should stop the material and intellectual cooperation they have with Israel to avoid any complicity with the ongoing perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Especially following the recent order by the Israeli military to one million Palestinians to evacuate the north of Gaza within 24 hours, international diplomacy should strive to de-escalate the violence and ensure the end of the total siege. This means prioritising the protection of Gaza civilians, by pushing for the immediate creation of safe spaces and the urgent delivery of humanitarian supplies into Gaza.

The EU must also ensure that war crimes perpetrators are held accountable. It must publicly support the International Criminal Court on its investigations of war crimes in Palestine and invite member states to support a chronically underfunded and understaffed court. Support to the court in its “Advisory Opinion on the Consequences of the Occupation” — by providing legal expertise during its calls for oral statements — should also be considered.

Finally, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories has for years been unable to exert its observer role. Supporting his access to the Occupied Palestinian Territories is essential.