Europe and the Gaza war

Opinion piece (Encompass)
07 February 2024

Europeans have struggled to form a coherent response to the Israel-Hamas conflict that erupted after Hamas’ brutal attacks on October 7th. European countries have tried, with limited success, to facilitate humanitarian assistance in Gaza, but they have been unable to do much beyond that, torn by internal divisions over issues such as whether to call for a permanent end to the fighting. Europeans have also been unable to do much about the situation in the West Bank, where attacks by Israeli settlers have resulted in several deaths, while injuring and displacing hundreds.

An end to the fighting seems distant. Israeli leaders have made clear that they will not stop until Hamas has been defeated and the remaining hostages, numbering around 130, have been freed. Israel and Hamas may agree to more pauses in the fighting, but a permanent ceasefire is unlikely unless Israel feels it has broken Hamas’ fighting forces and political hold in Gaza. The ongoing fighting, combined with lack of food and medication in Gaza, mean that the death toll, currently at over 27.000, will rise further.

Meanwhile, the risk of broader escalation is growing. Israeli military operations and settler attacks in the West Bank are weakening the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is already deeply unpopular, due to its corruption and authoritarianism. The Israeli-Lebanese border has seen exchanges of fire between Israel and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah. Pro-Iranian militias based in Iraq and Syria have carried out dozens of attacks on US forces in the two countries and in Jordan, killing US troops and prompting US retaliation. And the attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen on shipping transiting in the Bab-el-Mandeb strait at the entrance to the Red Sea are unlikely to stop.

There is a risk of a broader conflict. Further attacks by pro-Iran militias against US forces will push the US to strike Iranian targets, potentially sparking a broader Iranian response. That may include attempts by Tehran to block international shipping through the strait of Hormuz, disrupting energy supplies and perhaps leading to the US becoming entangled in a bombing campaign on Iran. Alternatively, Israel may decide to take broader action to remove Hezbollah from border areas, prompting that force to retaliate with its missile arsenal. That in turn could push Israel to launch a ground offensive that could bring large-scale destruction to Lebanon.

For Europe, the consequences of escalation would be significant. The costs of disruption to trade off the Horn of Africa could add up: shipping companies have already re-routed their operations around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, adding 7-10 days to trips between Asia and Europe and leading to rising costs, with higher insurance premiums and shipping companies tripling their charges. Intensified fighting between Israel and Hezbollah could further destabilise Lebanon and potentially force people to flee. And if Iran attacked ships or hydrocarbon production facilities in the Gulf states, there could be more disruption to energy flows.

Any progress will be very difficult. Europeans might be able to push for more humanitarian aid into Gaza. However, as Borrell admitted, Europe lacks the cohesion and influence to persuade Israel to halt military operations. Only the US could do that, but Biden has been unwilling to put meaningful pressure on Israel. Even if he did, Israel would be extremely unlikely to accept a permanent ceasefire so long as it thought Hamas posed a threat. It will also be hard for Europeans to have much influence on releasing the hostages or on dampening regional tensions. Their planned naval mission is unlikely to halt Houthi attacks on shipping, given that the Houthis have shown they are undeterred even by airstrikes. And, while Europeans can stress the dangers of escalation to all sides, ultimately the calculations on whether to take military action will be taken in the region.

Europeans should focus on pursuing concrete steps to pave the way for long-term diplomacy. The US wants a revitalised PA to run Gaza and hopes to convince Israel to take steps towards a two-state solution by enticing it with the prospect of normalising relations with Saudi Arabia. The Arab countries have developed similar plans, and those European countries that are thinking about these issues broadly agree. The problem is that Netanyahu has rejected a two-state solution, and his far-right allies pursue an annexationist agenda. Additionally, most Israelis and Palestinians reject a two-state solution.

For its part, the PA does not currently have the authority or resources to govern Gaza, and does not want to look as though it has returned to power there off the back of Israel’s offensive. The notion that Arab countries may be willing to take responsibility for security in Gaza is also far-fetched, as they want neither to be seen as repressing Palestinians, nor to face an insurgency from Hamas remnants. The idea of finding local Palestinian partners, advanced by some in the Israeli government, is also unlikely to be workable as they would be seen as collaborators and hunted down by Hamas. Ultimately, the lack of good options means that in the near-term Israel is likely to continue occupying the strip, while UN bodies and NGOs take care of civilian matters.

In the medium-term, however, the future governance of Gaza cannot be separated from that of the West Bank. An empowered and revitalised PA would look like a more serious and legitimate entity to Palestinians, Israel and external powers. The popularity of Hamas and other extremist groups would diminish, potentially allowing the PA to retake control of Gaza and encouraging Arab countries to fund reconstruction. It would then be possible to imagine progress towards a two-state solution – or something close to it.

Europeans could help bring that about. First, they should try to persuade Arab partners and the US to link potential normalisation to concrete Israeli steps to empower the PA. The EU is planning a peace conference, which could be framed as an effort to build consensus for such a plan even if the current Israeli government flatly rejects it. Second, Europeans should be firmer in pushing back against Israel’s policies in the West Bank. Recognising Palestinian statehood, as some European countries are considering, would be a symbolic step but would not change much. Instead, Europeans should sanction extremist settlers and seriously implement a ‘differentiation’ policy that distinguishes between the occupied territories and Israel proper. Third, Europeans should try to push the PA to renew its leadership and increase its transparency and accountability. Cutting aid is unlikely to be effective, but Europeans could offer additional financial assistance and tie it to clear targets.

To have a chance of succeeding, such a strategy would require a united effort by European countries, close co-ordination with a receptive US administration and Arab partners, and a more moderate Israeli government. While the obstacles are formidable, it is difficult to see any other feasible way ahead.

Luigi Scazzieri is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.