LONDON: European Union heads of state will hold an emergency meeting Tuesday on the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, following the cross-border attack by Hamas gunmen on October 7 that killed at least 1,400 Israelis.
Health authorities in Gaza say at least 2,750 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli bombings.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said he had called an urgent video conference of EU leaders to address the many consequences that conflict would have for the bloc.
“First, we must work towards urgently providing assistance for the basic needs of the most vulnerable civilians, and it must be done in full accordance with the humanitarian law. Second, everything must be done to avoid regional escalation and strong engagement with regional actors is thus key. We must continue to work towards a sustainable peace based on a two-state solution and this should be based on renewed efforts in the Middle East peace process, such as the Peace Day initiative.”
“Third, the conflict could have major security consequences for our societies. It has the potential to worsen tensions between communities and to feed extremism. Finally, there is a major risk of migration and movements of a large number of people to neighboring countries,” Michel said in a televised statement Monday.
It’s vital that Europe formulates a coherent policy on the Middle East conflict, said analyst Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Department of Defense Studies at Kings College London.
“It is, I would say, the most important neighborhood region for the European Union. And so a lot of what Europe does in this region is not based on the luxury of having a choice but of pure necessity,” he told VOA.
European nations gave Israel their full support in the days following the Hamas attacks. However, critics say there has been mixed messaging from EU leaders as the Israeli assault on Gaza intensifies and the mounting Palestinian death toll exposes divisions in the European response.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited the Kfar Aza kibbutz in southern Israel Friday, where Israeli forces say Hamas tortured and murdered dozens of civilians. She offered unequivocal support for Israel in its response to the attacks.
“Israel has a right to defend itself. In fact, it has the duty to defend its people. And we must call by their name the atrocities committed by Hamas. This is terrorism. This is an act of war,” von der Leyen said at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Hamas’ despicable actions are the hallmark of terrorists and I know that how Israel responds will show that it is a democracy.”
Von der Leyen’s speech sparked criticism from some senior European politicians. Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s security and defense committee, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the EU commission president was “forgetting an important message: Israel must respect international humanitarian law.”
Meanwhile the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week said that Israel’s siege of Gaza “is against international law,” following a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
The political narrative is becoming more nuanced, said analyst Krieg of Kings College London.
“I think we’re already seeing some of the Western policymakers backtracking and trying to put things into context — and saying, well, we stand with Israel, we also have to make sure that the lives of Palestinian civilians have to be secured and protected,” he told VOA.
European public opinion
That view is echoed in European public opinion, says Andreas Bohm of the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. “There is a significant part of the public today that acknowledges, recognizes the Palestinian struggle. They do have solidarity for Israel, I think, due to the nature of the attack. But in … the long run, if we see these pictures of, say, thousands or tens of thousands of people killed in Gaza, well that might change it,” Bohm told VOA.
For Hamas, such an outcome is desirable, Bohm added. “They want to weaken Israel. And so for them, any large scale ground invasion, with say thousands or tens of thousands of casualties — that would be a major success for them, because it hurts Israel. It tarnishes Israel’s reputation both in the region and globally with Western audiences,” he said.
Krieg, however, said Israel is unlikely to change course.
“I think the Israelis also will be more resilient in sustaining criticism and sustaining also the leverage of Western policy makers, because they’re saying, ‘This is our war. Look at these atrocities and we’ll do whatever is necessary to eradicate Hamas,’” Krieg told VOA.
Meanwhile, the European Union Monday announced a tripling of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, to $79 million, despite suggestions in the days following the Hamas attack that all aid to Gaza could be suspended.
With Israel maintaining a complete siege of the territory, it isn’t clear how or when the assistance might reach those in need.__VOA News