November 27, 2023

IntelBrief: How Does the European Union View the Israel-Hamas Conflict?

AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Over the last month and a half, the European Union (EU) has failed to speak with one voice regarding the Hamas-Israel conflict, an issue that has been especially noticeable in the trifurcated voting record of EU Member States in the United Nations General Assembly.
  • EU Member States maintain different historical relations with the Israelis and Palestinians, which has translated into diverging proposed courses of action related to the conflict, while domestic politics have also significantly informed varying stances.
  • Different European Union officials have broken with official protocol and strategy, potentially harming EU institutions and the idea of a unified European response to the conflict in Gaza.
  • Brussels has struggled to ensure that common foreign policy positions endorsed by all Member States translate into national foreign policy; moreover, the Treaty on the EU stipulates national security is the sole responsibility of Member States, likely complicating how countries view the Hamas-Israel conflict.

Over the last month and a half, protests both in support of Israel and Palestine have engulfed European cities. Meanwhile, the European Union Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred has warned that Islamophobic and antisemitic narratives are on the rise throughout the continent. The European Union (EU) Member States have similarly been divided as multiple public events and voting records highlight. While all Member States have unequivocally condemned Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, Member States are reacting differently to Israel’s response in Gaza. In the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the EU has seemingly split up into three blocks on the issue: those supporting the call for a ceasefire; those abstaining from a vote, frustrated by proposed resolutions’ lack of clear condemnation of Hamas’ terror and mention of Israel’s right to self-defense; and those voting against the resolutions which they think do not adequately highlight Israel’s rights. The now-passed UN General Assembly Resolution ES-10/21 calling for an immediate and sustained humanitarian truce was supported by the majority of EU countries, including France, while other countries, including Germany and Italy, abstained. Out of the 14 nations voting against the resolution altogether, four were EU Member States, including the Czech Republic and Hungary. While Member States have diverging voting records at the Assembly, the trifurcated voting record on the UN General Assembly Resolution ES-10/21 comes at the time of the issuing of a common position on the conflict by the European Council.

Much of the different approaches of Member States to the conflict can be explained by nations’ bespoke historical relations with the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as domestic politics. For example, countries that have historically been sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, such as Ireland, Belgium, and Spain, have been more vocal in criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza. In Ireland, for example, Irish nationalists have felt sympathy and rallied for the Palestinian cause for decades, reflected in government policies. In Germany, all parties, including left-wing parties, have staunchly condemned Hamas in statements. Some have accused Germany’s staunch support of Israel - even with allegations of human rights violations in Gaza - as a manifestation of guilt and a feeling of responsibility for the Holocaust. In contrast, the Spanish left-wing party Sumar – which is poised to form a part of the country’s governing coalition – has come under fire for refusing to characterize Hamas as a terrorist organization. These diverging reactions have been reflected at the supranational level as well.

At the EU institutional level, two individual blunders have further cast doubt on EU unity in the Hamas-Israel conflict. After an EU Commissioner unilaterally decided to post on X that EU aid payments to the Palestinian Territories would be suspended, Joseph Borrel, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP), had to walk back this statement. Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been criticized by Borrell and other top European diplomats for offering Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the EU’s “unconditional support” in Israel’s response to the October 7 attack. Borrell reiterated that the EU supports Israel’s right to defend itself, but that this is limited by international law and international humanitarian law. With officials at the highest echelons of the EU institutions seemingly diverging from the common positions officially adopted, there is further reputational harm to the concept of European unity and doubt about any strong, collective EU foreign policy response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The lack of European unity on a policy response to the Hamas-Israel conflict is part of a wider issue related to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Brussels has struggled with ensuring that common positions (the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy requires approval by unanimity) on paper are subsequently followed through at the Member State national level. Some propose that even if the EU introduced majority voting in foreign policy, non-U.S.-aligned policies would never reach a majority. Additionally, muddling decisive action, the Treaty on the European Union stipulates national security is the sole responsibility of Member States. This may influence how some of the countries view the resolution and its lack of support for Israel’s right to self-defense, reflecting the situation to their proper, domestic security concerns. This may be partly visible in countries voting against UN resolutions calling for a truce, highlighting the right to self-defense as the Czech Republic has done, for example. The careful balance between protecting national sovereignty and interests and collaborating on common security interests has thus muddled decisive, collective action.

As in the current Hamas-Israel conflict, Europe generally does not have the diplomatic leverage the U.S. has in conflict mitigation and diplomatic efforts in the wider Arab-Israel conflict. While Europe sends significant development and humanitarian aid to Palestine, the U.S. sends nearly $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel every year, as well as $344 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the UN agency that provides humanitarian services to Palestinian refugees. Additionally, European diplomatic initiatives have been withering in the region for years. Thus, some have argued that the EU is too marginalized in the Middle East for any meaningful contribution to the mitigation of conflict.