In Europe, Israel has historically enjoyed a high level of support, not least because it was perceived as a progressive democracy in a sea of Arab backwardness. At the same time, most Europeans knew very little about the Israel-Palestine conflict: as recently as 2004, the Glasgow University Media Group found that only 9% of British students knew that the Israelis were the illegal occupiers of Palestinian land. Astonishingly, there were actually more people (11%) who believed that the Palestinians were occupying the territories.
However, according to a new poll by ICM for the Middle East Monitor, Europeans’ perception of Israel has changed decisively, and their understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict, while still giving some cause for concern, has improved significantly. The survey of 7,000 people in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain reveals only a small minority (10%) now believe their countries should support Israel rather than the Palestinians, while many more, 39%, think they should not.
This shift in European public opinion may owe something to an improved understanding of the conflict; 49% of respondents were now able to identify Israel as the occupying power. However, 22% still didn’t know. This persistence of ignorance about issues that have been long established in international law may reflect media bias, or inadequate coverage of the conflict. It could also be a result of campaigns undertaken by the Israeli public relations machinery in Europe. Whatever the cause, the shift in public opinion is clearly not mainly due to the success of a pro-Palestinian lobby.
This decisive shift appears to be primarily a consequence of Israel’s violation of international law, specifically its actions in Gaza, the 2010 attack on the humanitarian flotilla, its settlement expansion programme, and the construction of the separation wall.
There is, across Europe, a growing rejection of Israeli policies. Its blockade of Gaza was said to be illegal by 53% of those polled (16% thought it legal) – an appreciation of the international legal opinion that recognises the siege as a form of collective punishment and a violation of the Geneva conventions.
While it is important to note that those polled saw fault on both sides, 31% considered Palestinians to be the primary victims of the conflict, while only 6% thought Israelis the primary victims. A third of respondents believe Israel is not a democracy, while fewer than half believe it is, and most of those surveyed (65%) agree Israel does not treat all religious groups the same, compared with 13% who believe it does.
European policy on Palestine can no longer be said to reflect the values and aspirations of the people. The survey confirms a disturbing level of disconnect between public opinion and governments’ actions. Whereas the EU took a decision in 2003 to place Hamas on its list of terrorist organisations and preclude it from any negotiations, 45% of those polled said it should be included in peace talks, while only 25% said it should be excluded. (A recent survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy research also found that 52% of British Jews support negotiating with Hamas for peace.)
Similarly, a clear majority of Europeans (58%) are against changing the law to make it easier for those accused of war crimes to visit Europe – a ringing indictment of governments that have either changed or are attempting to change their laws to protect Israeli war crime suspects. The Conservatives are committed to changing the law, yet only 7% of the 2,000 Britons polled would support such a change – the lowest figure in Europe.
The results of this study coincide with the epic changes engulfing the Middle East. Given the systemic discrimination by Israel against its Arab population, it is only fair to ask what the reaction would be if it was faced with mass civil protests by its Arab citizens demanding equal rights. Europe’s romantic view of Israel has long been on the wane. Its 20th-century image as the battling underdog in a hostile neighbourhood has been shattered by its actions. European governments should bring their policies into line with universally accepted human values. Anything less will be a betrayal of the democratic standards Europe claims to uphold.
Daud Abdullah, the director of the Middle East Monitor.