9th Dec 2023


European complicity in war crimes in Gaza

  • Even amid the horror in Gaza, some EU member states have been busy doing business with Israel approving lucrative arms deliveries, in the full knowledge that they will be used against a civilian population under siege (Photo: UNRWA)
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As the Hamas attack of 7 October was unfolding, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, tweeted repeatedly in real time and issued an urgent statement on behalf of the EU calling for an "immediate cessation of these senseless attacks and violence".

Since then Israel has imposed a total blockade on Gaza's 2.3 million people, half of whom are children, cutting off food, water, fuel and medical supplies, while bombing civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, places of worship, refugee camps and UN shelters.

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UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres denounced "clear violations of international humanitarian law" while medical professionals decried an "avalanche of suffering unprecedented in modern times".

A month on, with a death toll of 10,955 (as of Friday 10 November) and Gaza largely reduced to rubble, the EU has yet to call on Israel to ceasefire.

Throughout the past month, European leaders have reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself even as it has dropped more than 25,000 tonnes of explosives, a force equivalent to two nuclear bombs, on one of the most densely-populated areas on the planet.

While all states have a right to defend themselves under the UN Charter, this does not provide legal cover to wage war against an occupied territory, as the International Court of Justice pointed out in an advisory opinion on Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine.

Applying the same flawed logic to the Ukraine war would give Russia a right to self-defence in territories that it has illegally invaded and occupied. No such right exists under international law, yet European leaders, with few exceptions, have repeatedly defended what is legally and morally indefensible.

But Europe's political and military support for Israel is nothing new.

For decades, EU member states have provided military wares to Israel's occupation forces, with almost 30 percent of their major conventional weaponry originating in Germany (23.9 percent) and Italy (5.9 percent).

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) details the delivery of anti-ship/anti-submarine weapons, surface to air missiles, naval guns and combat aircraft, while the European Network Against the Arms Trade reveals that EU arms exports to Israel from 2011-2020 were worth €4.1bn.

As well as direct transfers, arms components are also channelled through the US before eventually ending up in Israel. Although this materiel should be subject to transfer permits based on end-user agreements, a practice has developed whereby EU member states waive this requirement in respect of US transfers, the US is happy to play ball, and European arms companies cash in on lucrative arms deals.

Annually, the US provides Israel with military assistance worth over $3.8bn [€3.6bn] and since October it has deployed an aircraft carrier, fighter jets, a nuclear powered submarine capable of carrying cruise missiles, three ballistic missile defence ships, and US drones.

Considering how embedded Europe's arms industry is with the US war machine, it is reasonable to assume that much of this equipment contains European arms components.

European complicity in war crimes

Even amid the horror in Gaza, some EU member states have been busy doing business with Israel approving lucrative arms deliveries, in the full knowledge that they will be used against a civilian population under siege.

Since 7 October, the Dutch government has approved the delivery of components for F-35 fighter jets, which are currently being used to pummel Gaza to pieces. Although lawyers at the foreign ministry advised against these transfers citing serious violations of the laws of war, the Dutch government chose to prioritise relations with Israel and the US, over Palestinian lives and upholding the rule of law.

Similarly, of the €303m in arms exports approved by Germany this year, 85 percent of these licences were given the green light in the wake of the 7 October attack when the economy ministry ordered that Israel be "given priority".

Across the Atlantic, US members of congress were put on notice for potential "criminal and civil liability for aiding and abetting genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" in advance of an emergency military aid package to Israel worth $14.5bn. They went ahead and approved it anyway.

For decades a cozy relationship has existed between the US, European, and Israeli arms industries, and despite growing evidence of war crimes in Gaza, it continues to flourish. Impunity for this unlawful business is seemingly guaranteed.

With few exceptions, EU member states, far from calling for an arms embargo or even a ceasefire, have instead chosen to provide political cover for Israel, with some actively arming the aggressor as it massacres and dispossess an entire people of their homeland.

It will ultimately be for a court of law to decide whether European leaders and member states are complicit in war crimes but the mass mobilisations across Europe over the past month would indicate that the court of public opinion has already made it's judgment — Europe has blood on its hands and must urgently shift course, call for a ceasefire, impose an arms embargo and break ties with Israel.

Author bio

Niamh Ni Bhriain is war and pacification programme coordinator at the Transnational Institute, founded in 1974 as a international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable planet.


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

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