Europe’s Response to the War in Gaza: Finding a Path to Constructive Engagement


In sharp contrast to the war in Ukraine, the Gaza conflict has severely challenged European solidarity. An expert in European affairs and conflict studies draws on his French connections and years of journalistic experience to probe the reasons for this disunity and consider the way forward.

The war in Ukraine, devastating for the Ukrainians, has been the focus of unprecedented solidarity in the European Union. Confronted by the threat of Russian military aggression, the 27 countries of the EU, along with such nonmembers as Britain and Norway, remain fundamentally united almost two years since Russia launched its invasion. Notwithstanding some dissonant notes—such as the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s criticisms of Ukraine—the European community has tackled the crisis as one.

By contrast, the EU’s reaction to the armed conflict that broke out last year between Israel and Hamas has been marked by confusion and disarray. Public opinion has been too divided for individual governments to articulate a clear and consistent position, let alone agree on a unified response. In the following, I draw from published discourse and my own interviews to probe this reaction, the conflict’s potential impact on Europe, and the possibility of positive engagement going forward.

Victim Turned Aggressor

On October 7, 2023, the militant Palestinian group Hamas led a series of surprise armed attacks on Israeli territory, killing large numbers of civilians and taking many others hostage. Arriving in Israel six days later, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, issued a strong statement of solidarity with the Israelis and their government. Although roundly criticized afterward, it was a justifiable response at the time. Israel was clearly the victim of a brutal attack and thus had a legitimate claim on the sympathy and support of the European Union.

The EU has traditionally placed great emphasis on such fundamental principles as human rights and respect for international rules in the formulation and execution of its foreign policy. Promoting those principles is not merely a noble pose; it is integral to the EU’s strategy for expanding its sphere of influence and advancing its own interests. This was doubtless the thinking behind von der Leyen’s visit to Israel.

But as Israel’s disproportionate military response took its toll, the dynamic changed. Israel became the aggressor, while the Palestinians of Gaza—forced from their homes by the Israeli military, killed while attempting to flee—became a vulnerable population caught up in a humanitarian crisis. That perception only intensified as the situation in Gaza worsened in early 2024.

Thanks to smartphones and social media, graphic images of the suffering and destruction in Gaza spread around the world, fueling outrage and sympathy for the Palestinians, just as they had done for the Ukrainians. Von der Leyen’s visit took on a meaning diametrically opposed to what she intended. Anti-Israel demonstrations broke out in European cities. Statements from EU leaders diverged and vacillated, and Europe’s internal divisions grew ever more pronounced.

Ukraine Still Tops the Agenda

Whether judged in terms of military scale or global impact, the war in Ukraine is to date the biggest international event of the twenty-first century, with serious repercussions for the international order. It is a conflict with a direct bearing on European security, one that poses a threat to the survival of democracy and the rule of law in a region that has fought hard to secure and safeguard those values.

The same cannot be said for the Israel-Hamas war. For most Europeans, the situation in Gaza, however shocking or distressing, is ultimately just the latest in an unending series of Middle Eastern conflicts with no direct relevance to their own lives. There are concerns, of course, that the fire could spread—and, in fact, the Houthi attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea have had a significant impact on global trade. But the prevailing view seems to be that a dramatic escalation is unlikely, since neither the United States nor Iran, the most influential actors in the region, want a wider war. (Of course, that is no guarantee that the conflict will not spread accidentally.)

This is why the positions of the various European countries, which were unanimous on Ukraine, are likely to differ with regard to Gaza. As defense journalist Aurélie Pugnet (reporter for explained it to me in an interview in Brussels last November, the EU countries have remained firmly united in their determination to counter the Russian menace. Making it as difficult as possible for Russia to continue its war against Ukraine will remain an unshakable pillar of the EU’s strategic policy, regardless of Orban’s pro-Russian proclivities. But perceptions about the conflict in Gaza and its relevance to Europe vary greatly from country to country.

From a geographical standpoint alone, the EU encompasses countries as diverse as Cyprus, just across the water from Gaza, and the Nordic countries. The farther south you go, the more sensitive people are to the Palestinian issue, says Pugnet. Other factors have an undeniable impact on the politics of the respective countries as well. For example, Germany has a unique historical relationship with Israel, while France has the EU’s largest Muslim population.

Refugees and Terrorism

For those European countries that view the Gaza conflict as a threat to their own interests, the foremost concerns are refugees and terrorism.

People have not forgotten the 2015 refugee crisis, when hundreds of thousands of migrants from Syria and elsewhere made the long journey west and north, much of it on foot, to seek asylum in the EU. Member states sparred with one another over the admission of refugees. Over the medium term, the crisis fueled the rise of rightwing populism and triggered political instability. European leaders are understandably wary of another such surge. As early as October 2023, Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis was warning, “We need to be vigilant, we need . . . better guarding of borders.”

Even before the war, Greece was grappling with a surge in illegal migration by Gaza Palestinians, who made for Lesbos, Chios, and other Aegean islands via Egypt and Turkey. The trend was already picking up steam in 2022, and by 2023 Palestinians accounted for the largest share (20%) of asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands. There is every possibility that those numbers will spike as Israel’s military offensive continues. Depending on the response, migration and refugee issues could become flashpoints in the upcoming 2024 European Parliament election.

With respect to terrorism, there have been a few incidents ostensibly motivated by the situation in Gaza (including the stabbing that killed a German tourist near the Eiffel Tower in Paris last December), but they have all been small in scale and planned by lone wolves. As of this writing in February 2024, there is no sense of an impending crisis comparable to that of 2015–16, when a series of organized attacks (including the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the coordinated attacks of November 2015) terrorized Europe as a whole.

Large-scale, coordinated terrorism generally requires a robust organization backed by a powerful group, such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State, and such networks are believed to have been decimated by the European response to the 2015–16 attacks. That said, Islamic extremists have doubtless been working in secret to rebuild since then, and there is no telling how much progress they may have made.

I spoke with an expert on the subject, Marc Hecker, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in an interview in Paris last November. Hecker pointed out that there is an ideological gulf between the jihadism driving Europe’s Islamic extremists and Hamas’s Islamic nationalism, making a coordinated terrorist campaign unlikely in the foreseeable future. In his view, the danger is that rivalry with Hamas could spur other Islamist groups to action. In any case, he calls for vigilance and cautions against Islamic extremism in Europe, without overreacting to or underestimating the risk it poses.

Taking the Long View

In short, while the immediate impact of the Gaza conflict on Europe may be limited, it substantially increases the risks of terrorism and a refugee crisis. Moreover, the longer the war drags on, the greater the potential for disruptions in critical energy supplies.

It is not enough for Europe to ward off the sparks from Gaza’s conflagration. It must play a more active role in resolving the region’s conflicts.

Europe and the Middle East are geographically adjacent regions that have engaged in centuries of lively exchange, at times falling under the same political and economic regimes. But Europe’s influence over Middle Eastern affairs has waned significantly of late.

In a recent article, Emiliano Alessandri and Domènec Ruiz Devesa attribute this “powerlessness” in large part to an increasingly polarized political environment and “receding space for common ground” in the Middle East, suggesting that “as power games have become mainstream in relations among Israelis, Palestinians, and regional actors, Europe’s traditional insistence on a comprehensive, inclusive, and balanced approach has lost much of its appeal.” Against the background of zero-sum power politics, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, once leavened by economic interdependence, has become defined by oppression and resistance.

Nonetheless, the authors believe that over the medium to long term, the EU can make a meaningful contribution to the region’s peace and stability. The United States, they point out, “is no longer in a position to play the same role of honest broker it performed back in the 1990s,” and the looming US presidential election will further limit Washington’s ability to mediate effectively. Europe must do what it can, within the current climate of polarization and radicalization, to revive diplomatic dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians and help rebuild the bridges that have been burned. In order to achieve this, it is essential to work on laying foundations for the future, such as revitalizing private sector exchange and supporting the emergence of a new generation of leaders on both sides.

Perhaps the first task for the EU is to agree on a clear set of goals for the future and draw up a roadmap for reaching them. There is good reason to hope that the member states can overcome their differences to reach such an agreement.

The role of nongovernmental actors, including both organizations and individuals, will be critical in this campaign. If such actors, supported by the EU and its member states, can open the door to dialogue and negotiation, they may also pave the way for a new era in EU-Mideast relations.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Demonstrators in Paris march toward Brussels to protest the Israeli offensive in Gaza, January 20, 2024. © Cristian Leyva/ZUMA Press Wire/Kyōdō.)

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