The European Union must find a collective and distinctive voice to seek to rein in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
Following the news from Gaza, as a European one recalls Martin Luther King: ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ I do not remember many of Europe’s leaders—especially the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen—saying that the collective punishment of Palestinians is in blatant violation of European principles and international law.
True, von der Leyen did affirm that ‘targeted attacks against civilian infrastructure are war crimes’, referring to the cutting off of ‘men, women, children from water, electricity, and heating’. The United States secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, repeatedly described intentionally targeting civilians as a war crime, as also hitting hospitals, schools and homes, while labelling strikes against energy infrastructure ‘barbaric’. And all such activities took place in Gaza, which remains under a full electricity blackout, within the first five days of the war.
Von der Leyen and Blinken were however referring to Ukraine, where the civilian death toll (to late September) has already been matched by the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza (to early November): respectively 9,700, of whom 530 were children, and more than 10,000, of whom fully 4,100 were children. The Gaza toll has come in just one-twentieth of the duration of the war in Ukraine.
In mid-October, the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, visited Israel to reaffirm support for it. He stayed at the King David Hotel, ironically the same building that hosted the British headquarters of then ‘mandate Palestine’ (1918-48) when it was blown up in 1946 by a militant Zionist group, Irgun, killing 91, many of them British. Irgun was led by Menachem Begin, who later served as Israel’s prime minister, representing Likud—the party of the current premier, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Off the chart
The right to self-defence may be easily defined. Use of the term ‘defence’ by occupying forces is however debatable: historians do not describe the atrocities of the Nazis in Europe during World War II as Germany’s ‘defence’ against France, Yugoslavia or Greece. And the war in Gaza does not take place in ‘disputed’ territories, as Israel would have it, but in what the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the European Union and others all recognise to be territories illegally occupied.
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Non-state violence is ethically and effectively tackled through counter-measures in line with human rights and the rule of law—not wars. Proportionality is an internationally accepted legal principle constraining states, one of the criteria for assessing whether they have been guilty of war crimes. The number of civilian victims in Gaza is already off the chart, even before we find out how many Palestinians lie dead under the rubble—that could already be as many as 1,350 children, according to Defence for Children International.
The majority of education facilities in the strip have been damaged, although none of Gaza’s 625,000 students is of course able to pursue their learning. More than half of Gaza’s hospitals and nearly two-thirds of primary healthcare centres are out of service and more than 50 ambulances have been damaged, which the UN has described as ‘unconscionable’.
Israel has stopped providing fuel to Gaza on the ground that Hamas would divert this from its intended use, such as by hospitals. That does not justify destruction of solar panels on hospital roofs, the last source of energy on which they can draw in the struggle to provide whatever rudimentary services they still can. The World Health Organization, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent refer to dozens of casualties among their staff so far. The 300 members of Médecins Sans Frontières have been evacuated.
Among UN personnel in Gaza, 89 had already been killed by Monday of last week. This is more than in any comparable period in the history of the organisation. These were not military, blue-helmet peacekeepers caught in crossfire—they were civilians providing humanitarian assistance.
The west considers press freedom and objectivity a hard-won privilege. Yet its media often refer to Israelis ‘killed’ but Palestinians who ‘died‘. Another narrative tends to be: ‘Israeli casualties are x. Palestinian casualties are y, according to Hamas.’ The former suggests uncontested fact, the latter likely inflation.
Europe’s leaders and media should take a different position from that of the US president, Joe Biden, who said he had ‘no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed’. They should rely on the facts reported by the UN and the many reputable humanitarian agencies still active on the ground. They should avoid reporting unverified assertions, the allegation by Netanyahu of decapitated Israeli babies being a case in point. Indeed, the US intelligence community has growing confidence that reports from Hamas-controlled Gaza are ‘roughly accurate’.
They should also probe more precisely. For example, the Economist claimed that ‘Gaza’s enormous child death toll reflects, among other things, its especially youthful demography’. The numbers it quoted indicated that children have comprised 40 per cent of the dead in Gaza and 6 per cent in Ukraine (a ratio of 6.5), while UN population statistics indicate that 50 per cent of the population in Gaza are younger than 20 years old compared with 20 per cent in Ukraine (a ratio of only 2.5). The enormous child death toll Gaza is not due to too many children but too many bombs—amounting to more than 25,000 tons of explosive by the beginning of November or nearly twice the conventional equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb.
The campaigns of non-state violence by the Basque-nationalist ETA and the Irish Republican Army fizzled out after the states involved no longer provided the credibility offered by abrogations of human rights and the rule of law, including the ‘dirty war’ in Spain and ‘shoot to kill’ in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. Will Hamas also run out of steam, if Palestine is established according to the international resolutions espoused by Europe and globally and invoked as a ‘rules-based order’ to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia?
Can these resolutions however be agreed by an Israel that relies instead on military might and a US that consistently uses its UN veto to support Israel? That veto was again exercised on October 18th, making the US the only member of the 15-strong Security Council to vote against a resolution calling for ‘humanitarian pauses’ to deliver lifesaving aid to millions in besieged Gaza.
If the war on Gaza is less justified self-defence and more reflective of short-term rage—or, worse, a long-term Israeli plan to eliminate the Palestinian presence—it is time for western, especially European, politicians to engage in some soul-searching. They must listen to the millions of ordinary citizens demonstrating across the world, frustrated by their apathy.
Zafiris Tzannatos is a senior fellow at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies and the Jordan Strategy Forum. He was a senior official inter alia at the World Bank and the International Labour Organization and professor of economics at the American University of Beirut.