Claire Spencer
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative
The fears of European security services that conflicts in Syria and Iraq are radicalizing young Muslims across Europe have had only limited echoes in European statements over the current conflict in Gaza. Popular protests across Europe against the high death-toll among Palestinians and accelerating humanitarian crisis should now focus minds: EU policy needs to address Gaza as a security risk to Europe itself.
Riot police stand on guard during demonstrations against Israeli military action on 19 July 2014 in Paris. Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images.Riot police stand on guard during demonstrations against Israeli military action on 19 July 2014 in Paris. Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images.

After two weeks’ conflict, popular European support for Israel is distinctly less vocal than the street-based outrage expressed on behalf of the Palestinians. European anger at the re-escalation of events in Gaza is not exclusively Muslim: the protestors have comprised an inclusive mix of peace and human rights activists, of all backgrounds and religious persuasions, with only a minority representing extremist views. Yet the evidence from jihadist recruitment in Syria shows that alternative courses of action now exist for European Muslims who have lost faith in changing European foreign policy through peaceful means; European anti-Semitism is also raising its ugly head in attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses in Paris and on banners in Berlin.

If the impact of peaceful protest on European policy remains as limited as it was on the two previous occasions Hamas and Israel battled over Gaza in 2008-09 and 2012, things may take a darker turn: the polarization of debate could escalate hate crimes and terror attacks in the heartland of Europe.

Against a background of violence in Syria and Iraq, popular activism over Palestine can no longer be separated from an emerging narrative that Arab and Muslim lives are cheap in the eyes of American and European leaders, seen as out of touch with public opinion. 

Where in 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron likened Gaza to an ‘open prison’ in which the conditions of life were untenable under the blockade imposed by Israel, in 2014, his position, along with that of most European leaders, has been firmly behind Israel’s right to defend itself against the more extensive reach of Hamas’s reinforced stock of long-range missiles.

As always, restraint has been urged on the Israelis to avoid civilian casualties, and Hamas singled out for the failure to agree to a ceasefire, yet the reticence of senior Europeans to get directly involved in implementing a fundamental policy change is palpable.

The paradox is that many European leaders, David Cameron included, have reacted to Gaza as though they are operating under American rather than their own domestic political constraints. American public opinion has never been much swayed by the plight of the Palestinians, and US administrations, above all the White House and State Department, operate within very narrow margins to criticize or impose sanctions on Israeli actions without incurring the wrath of Congress.

In Europe, the spectacle of increasing numbers of civilian casualties in Syria, Iraq and now Gaza has provoked a more mixed set of reactions and the strengthening of constituencies, above all right-wing anti-Semitic groups and jihadist recruitment networks, only too ready to exploit the gaps in public leadership. 

The European Union’s collective policies towards the Arab world and Israel hinge on what the European Neighbourhood Policy describes as ‘promoting our values’: of democracy, dialogue and the rule of law, along with pre-requisites for instilling good governance, inclusive economic growth, trade and employment in Europe’s backyard. Gaza has long been the antithesis of all this, despite previous European attempts to persuade Israel and Hamas to cooperate in lifting the siege under which a million and a half Gazans have lived since 2007.

Eventually a ceasefire of sorts will prevail, but it is now in Europe’s own security interests to ensure that the blockade on Gaza is lifted. The Israeli army’s identification of a far larger network of tunnels than previously thought running out of Gaza into Israel itself means it is also no longer in Israel’s interest that Gaza survives only through a subterranean economy. Unchecked and unmonitored, it has consistently allowed Hamas to restock its arsenal of ever longer-range missiles whenever hostilities cease.

Resolving the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be out of Europe’s diplomatic reach, but loosening Hamas’ iron grip over the Palestinians of Gaza requires the EU to act decisively in favour of opening Gaza’s economy, above ground, to the outside world. Israel relies on Europe for the bulk of its trade, and now needs EU assistance to police and prevent the reconstruction of tunnels, and adopt a humanitarian approach towards removing the blockade on ordinary Gazans.  

With tacit European and US approval, Israel reneged on previous ceasefire agreements allowing for the passage of goods and people in and out of Gaza. European leaders also reneged on their promotion and defence of the EU’s stated values, despite continuing to pay the salaries of Palestinian Authority employees confined within Gaza on the grounds that this contributed to peace.

Now that the myth of peace-making has exploded, it may be Europe’s own citizens who come to remind their respective governments of the price of ignoring the Palestinians’ right to life and dignity, and do so in ways that strike much closer to home.

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