The US is enabling mass slaughter in Gaza – Europe can act to change that

A pro-Palestinian demonstration outside the EU Commission building in Brussels on 19 February 2024. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images
A pro-Palestinian demonstration outside the EU Commission building in Brussels on 19 February 2024. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Europe is flanked by two grotesque wars involving mass slaughter (Gaza is, after all, just 578km away from Cyprus), waged by far-right fanatics harbouring either imperial or colonial intentions, and for whom war has become inextricably tied up with holding on to political power. One war implicates European security directly; the other is a shot at projecting its voice in the world. On both, the EU must start acting like a foreign policy superpower – not just independent of the US but also capable of nudging its hand.

It’s striking how much images of Gaza and Mariupol look similar. Bombed-out and destroyed, as broken as the bodies of the thousands of civilians killed beneath Russian bombs in one place, and Israeli bombs in the other. Each has its particular horror – in Ukraine, the legions of abducted and transferred children, in Gaza, the now rampant risk of mass hunger confronting nearly 2 million people.

Do Europe’s leaders see the parallels? Do they see that the common challenge in both is the Janus-faced approach of the US? Are they ready for the real possibility that Trump might win in November, and that Janus-faced will become simply sinister?

In the first phase of the war in Ukraine, the US was doing the right thing: with its support now in retreat, the EU has been forced to overcome Viktor Orbán’s obstinacy (and veto over aid) and find long-term solutions to compensate for an American absence. Paradoxically, an EU that is less dependent on the US to support Ukraine is an EU that is freer to put pressure on the US elsewhere.

In Gaza, the US persists in enabling something increasingly awful. But, as with Ukraine, the EU is capable of acting on its own, and in ways that might even oblige the Biden administration to change a strategy that has utterly failed to protect civilian lives (and doesn’t even make purely electoral sense – after all, Israel’s most extreme supremacist politicians make no secret of their desire to see Trump win and offer them an even freer hand).

When it comes to Russia, international pressure and activism remain focused on the war in Ukraine itself – for which, unlike Israel, Russia had no plausible claim to self-defence. Few call into question the legitimacy of its existence or demand that its colonised territories be freed from occupation. But unlike the Kremlin, Israel claims status as a liberal democracy and a western ally – even though under Benjamin Netanyahu it has raced in the exact opposite direction. Yes, Hamas has chosen Palestinian suffering over simply releasing all of the remaining hostages. But the Israeli government has made its own choices in response: telling the people of Gaza to flee and then bombing the places they flee to, conducting airstrikes with a far greater threshold for civilian deaths than even the US had when taking Raqqa in Syria from Isis, killing children, doctors, and journalists at a faster rate than in any other 21st-century conflict, blocking all but a trickle of aid even as there is basically nothing left.

Despite the pending temporary ceasefire, Netanyahu has indicated that he will continue the war into Rafah, where 1.5 million battered refugees are crowded into a few dozen square kilometres, and openly stated his plan for permanent control over Gaza in the long term – which is incompatible with any type of lasting peace or real justice. The EU should now put every bit of its leverage publicly on the table to stop him and to end the war. (Or, in the likely absence of unanimity, individual European countries should act in a coordinated way.)

What could it possibly do, though? What leverage does Europe have that the US does not? It is limited, I’m afraid, even if pressure has grown since last week’s incident when at least 110 Palestinians waiting for an aid convoy were killed. But by staking out a much stronger position against the war – and putting forward tangible consequences – maybe the EU can nudge Biden into a place where he has no choice but to do more than simply denounce Netanyahu in private or air-drop emergency food aid to Gazans.

First is trade, a natural place for the EU to act, because it is Israel’s largest trading partner, responsible for nearly 30% of the country’s international commerce. Last month, Ireland and Spain requested that the EU Commission review and potentially suspend the EU-Israel trade agreement if Israel is in violation of the human rights obligations the accord stipulates. In November, the EU affirmed the EastMed pipeline – meant to transport natural gas from the Leviathan field shared by Israel and Cyprus to the continent – as a priority infrastructure project. Forget the priority status, it should be cancelled.

Next, the EU could impose the same type of sanctions and travel bans on violent West Bank settlers as the US, UK and France recently enacted. And it should go even further, by reflecting the international court of justice’s ruling that “Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent and punish direct and public incitement to commit genocide”, to individually sanction politicians such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and others – including Netanyahu himself – who appear to have made exactly these kinds of exhortations to genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Finally, the EU can make it clear that it will unilaterally recognise Palestinian statehood based on 1967 borders, with a stipulation about future land swaps (there is no shortage of existing proposals on the issue of borders). The EU recognised the right of Palestinian people to self-determination as long ago as 1980; it’s time to follow through on this principle.

Of course, Europe is unlikely to sway the course of things on its own. But putting these consequences and actions on the table would be embarrassing to Biden, especially given the tenuous spot he’s in with his own electoral coalition. That coalition will judge him even more harshly if the US’s European allies show that it’s possible to act and he still does nothing. In fact, perhaps the credible threat of it in private would be enough to make the White House use its own levers of control over Netanyahu – a foreign policy version of Mario Draghi’s 2012 “whatever it takes” plan to save the euro.

And perhaps such clear public signals from Europe might break through to an Israeli public that is inwardly focused, but at the very least, increasingly angry with its government. Perhaps the domino effect might shake Netanyahu’s governing coalition and lead to his downfall.

Conventional wisdom that the EU grows in crises has been borne out several times in the 2020s. This is an urgent moment for the EU to grow again.

Alexander Hurst is a France-based writer and an adjunct lecturer at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

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