4th Dec 2023


Not like last time: Why Gaza is a new 'rip' in Belgian society

  • Belgian writer and public speaker Youssef Kobo (Photo: Youssef kobo)
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Belgium is used to seeing spikes in hatred of Jews and Muslims during Middle East conflicts, but the Gaza war is tearing apart society in deeper ways than before.

That was the warning from Youssef Kobo, a writer and speaker on Belgian politics, speaking to EUobserver this week.

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"Antisemitism and Islamophobia go through the roof" in Belgium, he said, because it is home to some 50,000 Jews and 800,000 Muslims.

According to past wisdom, such as ULB University's 2011 analysis of Israel's 2008/2009 war on Gaza, "this effect was not lasting and wore off after a couple of weeks".

There was "no systematic and continuous link" between Middle East events and Belgian social tensions, the ULB said back in the day.

But this time around, with the intensity of killing off the charts, and what Muslims see as a Western 'carte blanche' for Israel, "there are new rips in the [Belgian and European] social fabric", Kobo said.

"This will have bigger ramifications for global security than the Iraqi invasion had and Syria," he said, referring to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian civil war, which broke out in 2011.

The new Gaza war is acute because Palestinian group Hamas, which rules Gaza, killed 1,400 Israelis in a raid on 7 October — the greatest loss of civilian life in Israel's history.

Israel has killed over 9,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including thousands of children, in the Palestinians' greatest tragedy since the 1940s.

And the Western reaction has been unprecedented, Kobo said.

"This time, the EU, the UK, the Elysée, the Netherlands, Berlin, all came out with a carte blanche [for Israel]. There was no call for restraint, which is extremely unique," he said.

The Arab-Israeli conflict tends to split Belgium into three psychological groups — Jews, Muslims, and the rest, who "don't get" the "intensity of emotion" in the minority communities, Kobo said.

"[Israeli-occupied] Jerusalem is home to the third-most holy pace in Islam [the Al-Aqsa Mosque]. There's 75 years of humiliation in the heart of the Muslim world. For Jewish people, it's, of course, the trauma of the Holocaust," he said.

"For the rest of Belgium, it's very far from home — there's a disconnect," he added.

Zooming in on Muslims in Brussels, the home of the EU institutions, he said these were mostly people of Moroccan or Turkish origin, who already felt alienated from the EU flag.

When the European Commission lit up its HQ in the Israeli flag on 7 October, most of them "didn't care", Kobo said.

"The EU bubble is as white as can be and the Arab community isn't in touch with the institutions and what's going on there," he said.

Many Muslims also felt "objectified" in Belgium and by its "orientalist" media, he said.

"Looking at it from the receiving end, not a day's gone by in the past 20 years that I can think of without a story on how bad Muslims and minorities and migrants are," he said.

And that divide in society is getting deeper as images from Gaza deluge Arabic media and social media.

"There's disgust at the sheer [EU] indifference to loss of life in Palestine," Kobo said.

"The average European barely gets to see what's going on in Palestine, but your average Muslim guy in Stockholm, London, Malmö, Paris, Bordeaux, they're watching these images every day," he said.

"I have many friends talking about leaving Europe — seriously. I've had many conversations about that: 'We don't belong here ... We're going to look for other places'," he said.


Belgium's history of Islamist terror attacks, including the killing of two Swedish football fans on 16 October, has further aggravated tension.

Belgian Muslims saw the 16 October attacker as a "crazy person" and had "not the slightest bit of understanding" for what he did, Kobo said.

But if Israel or the EU wanted to thwart terrorism, then "the dumbest way of fighting terrorists is by bombing civilians" whether in Gaza or Iraq, he said, because "for every slaughtered civilian, you get 10 more recruits".

"The leadership of Hamas is safe and sound in Iran, in Turkey, in Qatar," Kobo noted.

"There's no doubt in my mind we'll see more lone actors, lone-wolf terrorists, around the world, and that new terrorist organisations will be born from this conflict," he said.

Meanwhile, French and Belgian authorities are investigating the role of Russia's Chechen diaspora in an Islamist killing in Arras, France, on 13 October and in race riots in Liege, Belgium, in August.

And for Kobo, this showed how the wound being torn open in European society was also a strategic vulnerability, in a time of sky-high geopolitical tension over Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.

"If I'm Tehran, if I'm Beijing, if I'm Moscow this [the Gaza war] is the one thing I'd be trying to exploit with everything that's currently going on," Kobo said.


Peaceful Israel/Gaza protests are not 'national security' threat

Over the last month, moves by several European governments to curb expression and protest in response to the unprecedented violence in Israel and Gaza/West Bank appear designed stifle dissent, deny collective grief, and create a 'chilling effect', writes Amnesty International.


Why EU's €18m for Israel undermines peace

The optics of a nine-fold increase of annual funding for Israel, in the middle of its devastating military campaign in Gaza, stands in contrast with the attempted suspension, delaying and constraining of EU development aid for the Palestinians.

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