9th Dec 2023


Why the EU must stop firing blanks over Gaza

  • Most of Gaza's two million civilians are not natural Hamas supporters but 80 percent of them need humanitarian assistance to survive. Half are unemployed. Most are under 18 (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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Amid the horror and revulsion at Hamas's massacre and mass kidnap in southern Israel, the pull to suspend critical thought in support of those on the firing line is gravitational.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen felt it, posting on X that she had been left "breathless" by the attacks and committing to "stand with Israel… today and in the days to come."

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The call to circle the wagons has been a transatlantic one. As Major Nir Dinar, an Israeli military spokesperson put it: "This is our 9/11".

Despite the scores of hostages now being held in the Gaza Strip — a significant difference to 9/11 — Israel's army seems poised to reinvade Gaza, nominally to disarm and depose Hamas.

It has cut food, water, electricity and gas supplies to Gazan civilians, in a timeworn (if less than persuasive) demonstration of the lack of the sanctity of the rules of war. Israel has itself flouted these rules for over 50 years of occupation, and this has been a foundational issue for Hamas.

Hamas's hideous attack should not distract from the asymmetric nature of a conflict which killed 6,407 Palestinians between 2008 and 2021, compared to 308 Israelis.

Many Israelis will not feel secure again until this 20:1 death ratio is restored. A study after the last Gaza 'war' found that on average, Israeli participants would be willing to kill 575 Palestinian civilians in order to save the life of one Israeli soldier.

In that context, von der Leyen's rush to send Tel Aviv a blank cheque could return to haunt her, and us.

The US response to September 11 was a two-decades long war on terror that claimed nearly one million lives without ending "terrorism", as events last weekend showed.

This time around, in the powder keg of the Middle East — and without any countervailing pressure from the EU or elsewhere — Israel may feel emboldened to go further.

An attack on Iran next?

Already, the country's far-right is baying for the destruction of Iranian nuclear sites. "This is the time for Israel to strike Iran," argued one commentator yesterday. "In an election year, both Democrats and Republicans will be supportive."

Would Europe support that? Would it "stand with Israel" amid Gaza's rubble, as an exodus of Palestinian refugees began?

Atrocities are preceded by dehumanisation. That is true for Palestinians and Israelis alike but the power imbalance in Gaza added an ominous air to the Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant's description of Palestinians there as "human animals" on Monday (9 October).

Before the latest escalation, Israel had so far this year systematically demolished 752 homes, forcibly transferred (or "ethnically cleansed") at least four long-standing communities, and killed at least 248 Palestinians, according to the UN.

During this time, von der Leyen did not feel breathless enough to tweet. However, the EU remained engaged, increasing its goods exports to Israel by €5bn and its services exports by €2.3bn.

Little of that cash will find its way to Gaza's two million civilians, most of whom are not natural Hamas supporters but nonetheless live under blight and blockade. 80 percent of them need humanitarian assistance to survive. Half are unemployed. Most are under 18. None have enjoyed a meaningful political horizon.

Holed up behind ghetto walls that separate them from Israeli Jews, raves, careers and holidays are unattainable fantasies for Gazans. They are refugees or the descendants of refugees created when the state of Israel was created — and this is the beating heart of the Palestine question that breathless condemnations do not change.

A relatively powerful, mostly European people is continuing to occupy a relatively powerless Arab population who will not — cannot — give up what they see as a national birthright.

The EU shrugs and releases cut-and-paste EU Council conclusions that propose reviving a moribund peace process as settler numbers swell to over 700,000, Jerusalem is ethnically-cleansed, and a push to annex the Jordan Valley accelerates.

From the point of view of many Palestinians, the Oslo Process turned out to be a sick joke and Europe does not really care that much.

Palestinians have learned that they are only noticed when they resist — and then, only as a folk-devil for Europe to stand against. But it is better than passively watching the light fade on their people.

Men In The Sun, a short story by the Palestinian novelist and resistance fighter, Ghassan Khanafani, tells the story of a group of Palestinian refugees in transit who die in the heat of a Gulf oil tanker, rather than shout out and alert the world to their existence.

Does anyone think that a blank cheque to the people who made them refugees would result in less refugees? Or that a blank cheque to their occupiers would create less resistance? Is the problem really that Israel has not used enough force? And if they used more, would it really be so surprising if Palestinians, too, suspended their critical thought in support of those on the firing line?

From a personal perspective I know a little about this.

When I was writing a book about Palestinian identity in 2009, I was attacked by a Gazan who tried to kill me. He was a schizophrenic who said he had been used as a human shield by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead in 2008.

After that he claimed that he was beaten, abused and dragged through the Israeli court system before being released back into a Gaza largely reduced to rubble.

Reducing more of Gaza to ashes will not create fewer of these deranged attackers.

When will Israel learn? When will we?

Author bio

Arthur Neslen is the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian identities: Occupied Minds - A Journey Through The Israeli Psyche and In Your Eyes A Sandstorm - Ways of Being Palestinian. From 2004 to 2009 he was based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, where he wrote about the Israel-Palestine conflict for the websites of Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the Economist, Haaretz and Jane's Information Group. He is now based in Brussels, writing about the environment for The Guardian and others.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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