Europe’s Leaders Are Lining Up to Support Israel’s War on the People of Gaza

Israel’s government has declared war on Gaza’s civilians in the name of collective punishment, ordering them to flee their homes or face unrestrained violence. European leaders who have supported this war will bear responsibility for what happens next.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen gestures during a tribute to the victims of Hamas's attacks in Israel at European Parliament, October 11. (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images)

The Israeli military has ordered more than a million Palestinians to leave the northern part of Gaza. It did not say when they would be allowed to return to their homes — if indeed their homes are still left standing after the Israeli offensive.

A UN spokesman warned that the Israeli order would have “devastating humanitarian consequences,” turning “what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.” The Norwegian Refugee Council demanded that this “illegal and impossible order” be canceled immediately:

The loss of civilian lives caused by deliberate or indiscriminate use of force is a war crime for which the perpetrators will have to answer. We fear that Israel may claim that Palestinians who could not flee northern Gaza can be erroneously held as directly participating in hostilities, and targeted.

Palestinians in Gaza are facing an impossible choice. If they leave their homes now, there is no guarantee they will be safe anywhere else, and no guarantee they will ever be allowed to return. If they stay where they are, Israel will claim that they voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way as its military machine lays waste to Gaza.

At least 1,800 Palestinians are already dead, according to the latest figures from the Palestinian health ministry, including almost six hundred children. There can be no pretense that Israel is not waging war on the entire population of Gaza.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has explicitly assigned collective responsibility for the actions of Hamas to everyone who lives in Gaza, as ITV News reported:

It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians [being] not aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’état.

Hamas took control of Gaza sixteen years ago. The median age for both men and women in Gaza is eighteen, and two-thirds of the population is under the age of twenty-four. According to Herzog, if they have not managed to overthrow Hamas by force — something Israel has been unable to accomplish with one of the world’s strongest armies — then they only have themselves to blame if an Israeli bomb or bullet takes their life. The statement is an unbridled declaration of war on civilians by Israel’s head of state.

Support for War Crimes

This is what politicians in Europe and the United States are supporting when they declare their solidarity with Israel. While it may come as little surprise that Joe Biden and Antony Blinken have given unconditional support to Netanyahu’s war, the pattern of high-level complicity is much the same on the other side of the Atlantic.

Speaking to the BBC this morning, British defense secretary Grant Shapps endorsed the evacuation order, presenting it as a legitimate act of war. Shapps was merely following in the footsteps of the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, who claimed earlier this week that Israel has the right to impose a “complete siege” on Gaza — in the words of Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant — with “no electricity, no food, no fuel.”

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, arrived in Israel today to offer “solidarity with the Israeli people.” Last year, von der Leyen branded “Russia’s attacks against civilian infrastructure, especially electricity” in Ukraine as “war crimes.” However, she has not issued so much as a token call for restraint as Israel bombards civilians and civilian infrastructure alike in Gaza.

Although von der Leyen is an unelected official, she is acting as if she possesses a democratic mandate to speak on behalf of the 448 million people who live in EU member states. Earlier this week, she issued the following statement as she ordered the Israeli flag to be projected onto the Commission headquarters in Brussels: “Israel has the right to defend itself — today and in the days to come. The European Union stands with Israel.”

Voices of Dissent

There have been some voices of dissent in the face of this stultifying consensus. Barry Andrews, an MEP from Ireland’s center-right Fianna Fáil party, strongly criticized von der Leyen:

I do not believe it was appropriate to display the Israeli flag on the European Commission building, not only because this is a highly divisive conflict, but especially because the European Commission has no authority as regards the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. . . . Attacks on citizens are a breach of international law, no matter which side they are from. We must express our solidarity with both the Israeli and Palestinian people whose lives have been upturned by the recent escalation. However, this does not mean legitimizing either the actions of the Israeli government or Hamas, who do not represent Palestine.

Andrews went on to note that the record of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in the occupied Palestinian territories includes “illegal occupation, torture, civilian killings, and countless other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Fianna Fáil is part of a coalition government in Dublin with another center-right party, Fine Gael, and the Greens. Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar is the current Irish taoiseach. Varadkar has always been an abrasively conservative figure with a contemptuous view of left-wing causes, which makes his intervention last night all the more notable:

They do have a right to defend themselves, but they don’t have the right to breach international humanitarian law. . . . I’m really concerned about what I’m seeing happening in Gaza at the moment. To me, it amounts to collective punishment. Cutting off power, cutting off fuel supplies and water supplies, that’s not the way a respectable democratic state should conduct itself.

Varadkar’s coalition partner, the Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin, called for the evacuation order to be rescinded this morning: “Two wrongs don’t make a right, and there’s an obligation to protect civilians in Gaza.”

The Scottish first minister Humza Yousaf is one of the very few public figures in Britain who seems to recognize Palestinians as full-fledged human beings — the parents of his wife Nadia El-Nakla, who is also a politician from the Scottish National Party, are currently trapped in Gaza. Yousaf responded to the Israeli evacuation order this morning: “The international community must step up and demand an end to collective punishment. Enough. There can be no justification for the death of innocent men, women, children.”

A Heavy Price

The comments from Varadkar, Martin, and Yousaf should be entirely unremarkable. The fact that they stand out so sharply against a backdrop of complicity shows that Europe has lurched into a very dark place. French police attacked demonstrators in Paris last night with tear gas after the government of Emmanuel Macron imposed a ban on expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians.

In a particularly distasteful move, the coleader of Germany’s ruling Social Democrats, Saskia Esken, boasted that she would be boycotting the launch of a book by Bernie Sanders because he did not “stand by Israel” to her liking. An American Jew whose family came from modern-day Poland, who was born while the Holocaust was taking place and lost close relatives in the Nazi death camps, thus has to deal with finger-wagging lectures from a German politician with no discernible record of achievement who believes that she has a better understanding of antisemitism than he does.

Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman quoted an EU official in his latest article: “Our fear is that we’ll pay a heavy price in the global south because of this conflict.” Another official told Rachman that “we may be about to see massive ethnic cleansing.” If they don’t want to pay that price, they need to end their support for Netanyahu’s war right now, instead of wringing their hands when it is already too late.