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What Europe’s role should be in Israel-Hamas war

What Europe’s role should be in Israel-Hamas war

by host

Julien Barnes-Dacey is the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Hugh Lovatt is a senior policy fellow at ECFR.

The brutal terror Hamas unleashed upon Israeli civilians on October 7 has rightly provoked full European solidarity. The scenes of horror have deservedly been condemned in the strongest terms, with the European Union backing Israel’s right to self-defense.

As the bloc continues to provide strong political backing for Israel, it should also be using its diplomatic channels to prevent dangerous regional escalation. But it must be clear that this isn’t a blank check for a war of annihilation on Gaza — which all prior experience indicates would be counterproductive in addressing the threat posed by Hamas — and the collective punishment of all Palestinians.

European leaders should use today’s extraordinary European Council meeting to unite behind this message, putting aside the divisions that have characterized the EU’s initial response to the crisis.

Since the horrendous bloodshed of the Hamas attacks, which saw 1,300 Israelis killed and at least 199 taken hostage last week, Israel has unleashed an intense aerial campaign that has killed over 2,300 Palestinians — many of them civilians. It has imposed a complete siege on the densely packed coastal enclave, leaving the population with no escape and compounding a preexisting humanitarian crisis. Israeli jets have also bombed the Egyptian border and the country is preventing humanitarian supplies from entering Gaza. In the words of Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

Now, the Israeli military is preparing to launch what will likely be a hugely destructive ground invasion, with the goal of eradicating Hamas’ presence. The country has called for more than one million civilians to relocate to southern Gaza — a step that is unworkable and would, according to the U.N., have “devastating humanitarian consequences.”

For European leaders, this is a difficult moment. They have loudly spoken out in support of international law in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accused Russia of committing “war crimes” for attacking Ukrainian infrastructure and cutting its civilian population off from water and electricity. But there has been hesitancy in proclaiming these same principles toward Israel — as was apparent in von der Leyen’s trip to the country last Friday, where she voiced full solidarity and made no reference to the need to maintain international law.

The remarks provoked criticism, and European states have since articulated the need for Israel to respect international law. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell noted, “this means no blockage of water, food, or electricity to the civil population in Gaza.” However, this message is still being diluted by emphatic European support for Israel’s right to use overwhelming military force. And key EU states, joining the United States and the United Kingdom, have been unwilling to publicly pressure the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite clear violations already occurring.

This is the wrong choice for Europe, and it will only make the situation on the ground worse.

From a principled perspective, being seen to only apply international law to foes will further weaken Europe’s standing in the Middle East and the global south, where it is often accused of double standards. Russia and China are already seeking to exploit the situation at the West’s expense. And at a moment when Europe has been proclaiming the centrality of the rules-based order, it must stay committed to this position when it comes to Israel’s response as well, or face a further drain of Western legitimacy.

Meanwhile, a devastating Israeli military campaign on Gaza — mirroring the West’s anti-terrorism campaigns across the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks — will fail to deliver security or peace.

Israel will find no military victory in Gaza, as has already been seen after four unsuccessful wars since Hamas’ takeover in 2007. Israel will face a bloody fight against determined militants who will use the urban environment to their advantage. Unrestrained Israeli military action will feed wide Palestinian anger and despair — as was likely intended by Hamas as it seeks to recement its position at the head of the Palestinian cause. It will also energize support for armed groups in the West Bank. Faced with the collapse of any political horizon for securing rights, many Palestinians will conclude that armed struggle is the only pathway left open to them.

Demonstrators attend a rally in support of the Palestinian people in Madrid | Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images

Widespread devastation across Gaza will also increase public anger against Israel in the Middle East, undermining the country’s efforts to deepen relations with countries like Saudi Arabia, which has now paused normalization talks. Significantly, it could also ignite a wider regional conflict. While the armed Lebanese group Hezbollah currently appears to want to avoid full-scale war with Israel, it has indicated that a ground invasion of Gaza is a redline.

Israel will then be left with a devastated Gaza Strip, with no obvious political endgame or exit strategy. It will have to govern the strip itself, as was the case prior to 2005, or bring back a brittle and discredited Palestinian National Authority — both options that will fuel ongoing instability, nurture the conditions for Hamas or other violent groups, and further erode the potential for any political solution to ensure peace and security for both sides. 

When Europe’s heads of state meet today, they need to match their strong display of solidarity for Israel with a strong call for the country to immediately lift the siege and allow civilians to access humanitarian aid. Crucially, with a ground operation looming, they must also press for a military response that is proportionally targeted against Hamas and avoids the collective punishment of 2 million Gazans, half of whom are children. Western officials, wanting to stand by Israel, are now citing the need to hold Israel close, but this approach is failing with devastating consequences.

To further encourage a more calibrated Israeli response, Europe should urgently intensify engagement with both the U.S. and Arab partners that have influence on Hamas — countries such as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey — in order to secure the release of Israeli civilian hostages and open desperately needed humanitarian channels.  

But Europe must also be thinking ahead. The idea that Palestinians can have a military solution imposed upon them, or that peace can be made over their heads through regional deals, has proven to be a dangerous fallacy. With its potential for dangerous regional escalation, this metastasizing conflict underscores the urgency of Western diplomatic reengagement. The Continent’s governments have an important role to play in rethinking the pursuit of a fair and sustainable political solution that can guarantee rights and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Understandably, Israel is currently focused on the immediate imperative of responding to this unprecedented security crisis. But some are already articulating the need for a new political vision that meets the needs of both peoples — and Europe should take the lead in helping shape this better future.

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