4th Dec 2023


Germany, Israel and Gaza: an increasingly untenable position

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Almost seven weeks have passed since Hamas massacred 1,200 Israelis in a horrific attack that led Israel to launch a war in Gaza. Within days, the German government's position became one of strong support for all aspects of Israel's military response, a position informed by convictions about anti-Semitism, lessons of German history, the current political situation in Germany, and the history of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

I completely agree with the government's concern about anti-Semitism in Germany, but I think its approach to the war in Gaza and the developments in the West Bank is morally wrong, politically damaging, rigid and likely to break soon.

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  • We are constantly told — in essence — that 'Israel can do no wrong'.

On the issue of antisemitism, the German authorities have reported a significant increase in antisemitic acts since 7 October. While in recent years, far-right actors have been primarily responsible for increasing antisemitic violence, the recent wave has been driven by Islamists or anti-Israel perpetrators.

If Jews are not safe in Germany, we — our government and our society — have dramatically failed to learn the most important lesson of Germany history. The government is right to step up its efforts and so should we, as citizens.

I am much less convinced by the position the government has taken on the situation in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. A position which is shared by the other democratic political parties and most of the media.

At its core, this response is based upon the belief that the attack by Hamas on 7 October was a unique evil that reminds us of the even more unique evil of the Nazi Germans. As a result, anything less than total support for Israel's war in Gaza would be a betrayal of the lessons we learned from the last century.

When one is convinced that total support is one's moral duty, it becomes psychologically difficult to justify any limitation of that support.

Thus, we are constantly told — in essence — that 'Israel can do no wrong'.

Just last week, chancellor Olaf Scholz insisted that "Israel is a country that is committed to human rights and international law and acts accordingly. And that is why the accusations against Israel are absurd and there can be no doubt about it."

Denying even the right to doubt Israel's actions has become a hallmark of German discourse. Our best-known contemporary philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, offered some "principles for thinking about the situation that should not be disputed" (my emphasis).

There is some irony here — in his best-known work Habermas argued that rationality should be defined as a form of thinking that is willing to listen to criticism.

In the words of Shakespeare, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks." Scholz does not sound self-assured because some basic facts contradict his statement.

Israel is committed to international law, there can be no doubt about that?

Well, it has long been the position of the German government (and almost the entire world) that Israeli governments systematically violate international law by allowing (and encouraging) settlements in the occupied West Bank. This is not a minor matter.

And in the context of this war, on 9 October, Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant announced a "total siege of Gaza", adding "there will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed". He has largely followed through on this declaration.

More than 2,000,000 Gazans have been deprived of drinking water, food, medicine and other basic necessities. I doubt that any international lawyer will be able to justify this action. And beyond the law, I don't understand how anyone can reconcile this situation with a basic sense of humanity.

What we understand in Germany is this truth: Israelis feel their existence is threatened. They have very rational reasons for this. The atrocities of 7 October were a chilling reminder that murderous actors do not accept its existence.

The other truth that many Germans do not want to acknowledge is that Palestinians also feel that their existence is threatened. They also have rational reasons for this — and their situation is extremely urgent.

The Palestinian perspective that we rarely hear is this: the Israeli government has no interest in a Palestinian state. The ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank have undermined this possibility. And now we are in the endgame.

Violence in the West Bank is increasing. Gaza is being destroyed-and-divided, and attempts are being made to expel its population. If this succeeds, there won't be a Palestinian state. And there will hardly be a Palestinian society, whatever Western politicians may say.

I am not saying that the Palestinians are undoubtedly right in their fears — but these fears are not irrational. They are based on concrete facts, including numerous statements from leading Israeli politicians.

Simply ignoring the Palestinian side of the story provides psychological comfort, it avoids the feeling of a dilemma. But it does not do justice to the situation.

While giving little rhetorical space to the Palestinian perspective, the German government's policies are not completely oblivious to the suffering, but they frame it as a purely humanitarian matter.

Many politicians speak about Gaza as if it is experiencing a natural disaster, not a man-made catastrophe.

German stance is about to crack

The result is a contradictory policy: providing humanitarian aid with one hand, while supporting (or at least doing nothing to prevent) the Israeli government from creating a humanitarian disaster with the other. Calling for a two-state solution, but shying away from strong measures to persuade the Israeli government to immediately stop the violence in the West Bank.

I mentioned earlier that I expect this rigid position and self-contradictory position to break. How will this happen? In two ways.

First, as a result of facts on the grounds. The worse the humanitarian situation in Gaza becomes, the harder it will be to ignore.

At some point the German government will change its damaging posture that — for now — implies it accepts the starvation of an entire population. The government would be well-advised to change its position instantly and lean on Israel to end the inhumane blockade.

Second as a result of evolution in US policy towards the war. The Biden administration is becoming ever firmer with the Israeli government.

In his recent op-ed, president Joe Biden threatened to introduce visa bans against violent settlers, spoke against the blockade of Gaza and reaffirmed the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The US has a myriad of reasons to try to end this war and launch a political process — not the least because Biden fears for his re-election.

Germany will follow US leadership and support these steps. In doing so, it will abandon its position of unconditional support to Israel.

Instead of being dragged along, the German government should recognise the understandable fears of both sides, defend humanitarian standards and prioritise the search for political solutions before it is too late.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation. He writes here in a personal capacity.


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

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