Why Spain Opposed the West’s Punishment of UNRWA

When the US suspended aid to the main UN aid agency in Gaza, the Spanish government increased its funding. While most Western countries follow a dogged pro-Israel line, left-wing ministers in Spain have been a rare dissenting voice.

Spain's prime minister Pedro Sanchez delivering a speech in Madrid, on December 29, 2021. (Javier Soriano / AFP via Getty Images)

On February 5, the Spanish government announced $3.8 million in additional emergency funding to UNRWA, the United Nations’ main humanitarian agency in Gaza. The cash is meant to help ensure the agency can continue supplying essential humanitarian aid to Palestinians over the short term, faced with its main donors’ decision to slash funding. Spain’s move is a largely symbolic increase, relative to the agency’s overall $1.17 billion budget. Yet with a string of countries including the United States, Germany, and Britain suspending funding to the UN mission, Spain was one of few European states that openly rejected the move.

As Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Albares noted, Israeli allegations that UNRWA employees were involved in the October 7 attacks only related to approximately “ten out of its nearly 30,000 workers.” Social affairs minister Pablo Bustinduy, from the left-wing Sumar platform, went further, calling out the suspension of UNRWA funds by other Western countries as “an unjustifiable operation of collective punishment toward the Palestinian people.”

This was yet another example of how the government led by the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Sumar has consistently positioned itself as something of an outlier, staking out the most pro-Palestinian positions with the European Union. Before Christmas, when Spain held the rotating EU presidency, center-left prime minister Pedro Sánchez called out Israel’s “indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilizations, including thousands of children” and demanded an “immediate” and “lasting” cease-fire — at a moment when other European leaders were simply offering their unreserved support to Benjamín Netanyahu’s government. Ministers from left-wing coalition Sumar have probably gone further than officials anywhere else in the West by characterizing Israel’s campaign as a case of “genocide against the Palestinian people.”

Yet though the clarity of such statements have been in stark contrast to the moral cowardice elsewhere, actually translating such sentiment into concrete measures has been more complicated. As a middle-ranking NATO power operating within the EU’s multilateral structures, Spain’s margin to intervene substantively is very narrow. But it is also clear that Sánchez has largely shied away from more aggressive diplomatic actions open to him. Where the coalition has acted, as with the moderate increase in UNRWA funds, the moves have been incommensurate to the campaign of extermination and ethnic cleansing being waged by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Courting Majority Opinion

Whatever its limits, the key to explaining Spain’s pro-Palestinian positioning is the domestic political consensus, stretching back some decades, critical of the Israeli occupation. “On the Spanish left, there has historically been a broad consensus in defense of Palestine while the Spanish right has not traditionally been very Zionist — though there have been some efforts from [far-right] Vox to move in that direction more recently,” Sumar MP Txema Guijarro tells Jacobin. “Both under Franco and afterward, even many on the Right have prioritized relations with Arab states, in particular around securing energy supplies, but also so as to ensure influence in the Southern Mediterranean and the Gulf,” he adds.

Furthermore, accusations of antisemitism — now habitually used across Europe to smear Israel’s critics — have not been successfully weaponized in Spain to crack down on protests or discipline left-wing voices. Attempts by conservative outlets in the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks to frame pro-Palestinian comments by Sumar and Podemos MPs as constituting support for Hamas never gained sustained traction.

One clear example is the stark contrast between the political witch hunt that Rashida Tlaib has had to endure in the United States and the response in Spain to Children and Youth Minister Sira Rego’s firsthand experiences of occupation in the West Bank. Rego’s father is Palestinian, and she spent a significant part of her childhood living in occupied East Jerusalem. Today she is a member of the Spanish Communist Party. On October 7, only hours after the Hamas-led attack, she wrote on social media:

Palestine has the right to resist after decades of occupation, apartheid and exile. In the face of those who today advocate a return to collective punishment by bombing the Gaza Strip, it is urgent to defend international law. The only solution is an end to the occupation.

If such clear anti-Zionist statements would lead to demonization elsewhere, Rego was named a government minister just over a month later, with her appointment generating very little controversy in mainstream media.

In the context of such broad support for Palestine across Spanish society, Sánchez’s criticisms of Israeli atrocities and his various diplomatic initiatives at a European level have clearly been made with one eye on his public opinion back home. Indeed, with his clear political need to deflect the media spotlight away from the negotiation of an unpopular amnesty law for the Catalan independence movement, La Vanguardia correspondent Enric Juliana described Sánchez as seeking an effect on public opinion akin to that of “a second withdrawal from Iraq.” This was a reference to then PSOE leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s decision to immediately pull all Spanish troops out of US-occupied Iraq upon becoming prime minister in 2004. That move, too, caused consternation in Washington but was highly popular at home.

Extracting Concessions

Yet as director of the Fundació Sentit Comú think tank Mario Ríos argues, Sánchez has positioned himself as “a global leader willing to take a strong principled stand on Gaza — a stance which plays well domestically — yet, at the same time, there is no straightforward translation in policy terms.” For Ríos, this primarily has to do with the fact that “there are not enough European states backing a similar position to Spain’s to reorient the bloc’s position, with the EU continuing to lurch rightward before June’s elections to the European parliament.”

This was underscored with the joint declaration on February 14 asking the European Commission to undertake an urgent review of the EU-Israel agreement in light of the imminent assault on Rafah in southern Gaza. Out of all twenty-seven member states, only Spain and Ireland signed. “It is very hard to take a really strong progressive stand when all of Europe is shifting in a reactionary position around you and when you have to work with these states in other areas,” Ríos insists. “Furthermore, Spain by itself does not have the type of hard power necessary to exert serious pressure on Israel.”

Yet, as political analyst Xan López notes, “In being careful to remain within the acceptable limits for a NATO country, and not wanting to risk anything,” Sánchez has not even gone after “low-hanging fruit, like publicly backing the ICJ [International Court of Justice]’s preliminary findings in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel.” In this same vein, PSOE has also repeatedly rejected calls from its junior coalition partner, Sumar, for a complete embargo on the arms trade with Israel.

Spain has a standard legal protocol under which all arms sales to conflict zones are temporarily frozen once hostilities break out. On at least one occasion since October 7, however, Spanish state officials have failed to even enforce this, with the export of nearly €1 million worth of munitions to Israel in November. With Spain having imported hundreds of millions of euros worth of arms from Israel over the last decade, as well as signed significant domestic defense manufacturing contracts with international consortiums that include Israeli companies, there is no appetite within Sánchez’s party for a broader embargo.

For his part, Guijarro accepts that Spain’s coalition government needs to go further on various fronts. “It needs to back the ICJ case, though we [in Sumar] have succeeded in securing government funding for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into [specific] Israeli war crimes,” the MP explains. Beyond that, however, he sees Sumar’s priority right now as securing further funds for UNRWA, which has had at least 60 percent of its budget frozen. As he explains:

The mission’s withdrawal of services would lead to untold human suffering and represent the culmination of the ongoing genocidal policy. We have repeatedly asked the foreign minister to pledge a more substantive figure matching the pressing, short term need of the situation. So far, the $3.8 million in additional funding remains largely symbolic. It is not nothing, but we need to be more ambitious, as well as to use our diplomatic clout in certain regions to rally other countries to offer emergency funding. I would like to see Spain take a more leading role in coordinating this.

“PSOE jealously guard their right to set policy in foreign affairs and defense,” Guijarro notes. But he insists that in Sumar, “we continue to intervene and push for further measures because basic fundamental differences separate us from them.” One such difference is the two parties’ positioning on NATO, with Sánchez’s desire to avoid a governmental crisis a key factor informing his decision not to participate in recent US-led strikes against the Houthis in Yemen.

Factional Warfare by Other Means

For López, the margin for Sumar to intervene and push PSOE further is very tight. “Ideally, you would want Spain to impose serious economic sanctions on Israel and cut all diplomatic relations. But the parliamentary left is having to content itself with advancing more achievable, if still necessary, goals around funding UNRWA or maybe moving the coalition into supporting South Africa’s case,” he argues.

Sumar’s positioning has further been complicated after its split with the rump of the Podemos party. The latter frames its exclusion from government ministries at the start of the coalition’s second term last November as a product of its strong stance on Gaza. In reality, the party’s exclusion owed rather more to a bitter, two-year-long fight for leadership within the Spanish left. The Sumar platform was set up by current deputy premier Yolanda Díaz in 2022 to gain greater autonomy from her predecessor Pablo Iglesias and reconfigure a fragmented left space around her leadership. This, in turn, drew open hostility from Iglesias’s praetorian guard in control of Podemos.

Now in survival mode, after having lost most of its leading cadre and institutional weight over the last two years, Podemos is seeking to make a stand in June’s European elections, under the leadership of former equality minister Irene Montero. “At this stage, Podemos has basically become a single-issue party, positioning itself as a party capable of a strong moral defense of Palestine and using Gaza as its main point of attack against Díaz and the rest of the Spanish left,” Ríos argues.

For the Spanish left, there are obvious contradictions in entering government as the junior coalition partner in a NATO member state. They were contradictions that Iglesias and Podemos’s current leader, Ione Belarra, were willing to assume when they negotiated the first PSOE–Unidas Podemos coalition in late 2019. Díaz is the highest-ranking official in any European government to characterize Israel’s onslaught in Gaza as genocidal. With the IDF now narrowing in on Rafah, she announced on Wednesday that she will travel to Palestine in the coming days in what is likely to be a highly charged trip.

“Spain can do more,” she insisted as she announced the visit. “It is not enough to call on the EU to act. We need to do more.”