The massive escalation of violence in the Middle East has major ramifications for Europe, which has a long history of involvement in the defunct Middle East Peace Process. The European Union has partnerships with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and is officially committed to a two-state solution. But the conflict has been long neglected. The upsurge in violence, and its resonance around the world, have brutally exposed how this conflict still matters, as many had warned. It is complicating efforts to build international solidarity with Ukraine, and is triggering irrational spikes in hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim people globally. But even as it highlights the importance of the issue, the level of violence also makes it harder to solve. The long-term answer must be that both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, need to live in the same small area under some political configuration that works for both of them. So what medium-term political pathway leads there?
The long-term answer must be that both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, need to live in the same small area under some political configuration that works for both of them. So what medium-term political pathway leads there? Jane Kinninmont
The attack by Hamas on October 7th, the Israeli assault on Gaza since then, and the ongoing fighting between Hamas and Israel has already killed thousands of civilians: Hamas killed some 1400 Israelis and took over 200 hostages, causing some 200,000 residents of southern Israel to flee their homes, while Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed some 8,000 Palestinians, including over 3,000 children, and displaced around one million people. This is large-scale violence by any standards: according to Save The Children, more children have died in this conflict in three weeks than in all the conflicts in the world in 2022.
European diplomats have been working on multiple tracks: negotiating intensively on the humanitarian crisis and hostages; seeking to prevent regional escalation; and developing ideas for a humanitarian pause or ceasefire. However, having been unusually united over Ukraine, European countries have fallen back into old divisions over this conflict, especially the question of a ceasefire. At the UN General Assembly last week, EU countries were split over a resolution that called for a ceasefire – which passed with the support of 120 countries. They wrangled over whether a ceasefire was important enough to justify accepting a text that did not also call for the release of hostages, and which condemned terrorism but didn’t name Hamas (despite Canadian attempts to add this in an amendment). In the event, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that ground forces were entering Gaza in a “second stage” of the war and cited support from several European countries.
Those opposed to a ceasefire are concerned it would simply freeze the conflict, embolden attacks on Israel and postpone rather than prevent more terrible violence. There have been several previous ceasefires between Israel and Hamas. But with its decades of experience and expertise on this particular conflict, Europe has the knowledge and the skills to go deeper. European diplomats need to search for a political way out of this conflict, of which Hamas is only one element.
With its decades of experience and expertise on this particular conflict, Europe has the knowledge and the skills to go deeper. European diplomats need to search for a political way out of this conflict. Jane Kinninmont
In the immediate term, that should include exploring whether there are any options for a ceasefire to result in a political solution. That might involve, for instance, a time-bound effort to reach a negotiated exit for the remaining Hamas leaders with heavy pressure from regional countries. Other elements of negotiations could potentially include the full release of hostages (building on existing discussions about a possible exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails), the full withdrawal of Israeli troops, international guarantees and peacekeepers, and a timeline for Palestinian Authority (PA) elections (noting also a recent proposal from a former Palestinian prime minister for reconfiguring the PA). There are no guarantees that such a way forward is feasible. But there is surely a responsibility to test out negotiated options. Current actions should be assessed with an eye to the long term: do they make it more possible or less possible that in the future, the two peoples will be able to live alongside one another?
The current violence has reminded the world of the underlying issues in the conflict. These have been noted, for instance, by the Norwegian foreign minister, who acknowledged European donors had been supposed to support a two-state solution but instead seemed to be barely maintaining “a non-solution”. But the level of civilian suffering is at the same time destroying constituencies for peacemaking and eroding faith among both Israelis and Palestinians in being able to live alongside one another. Both nations will probably have new political leaders in the relatively near future. But there is an increasing risk that a growing number on both sides will think the only solution is to expel the others. Even that would hardly end this conflict between peoples whose national identities have both been shaped in part by historic experiences of exile and refugeehood.
The current violence has reminded the world of the underlying issues in the conflict. These have been noted, for instance, by the Norwegian foreign minister, who acknowledged European donors had been supposed to support a two-state solution but instead seemed to be barely maintaining “a non-solution”. Jane Kinninmont
The attacks of October 7th represented an unprecedented escalation by Hamas, and a shift both in strategy and in internal leadership dynamics by a group that had in recent years signalled some possible moderation, but which remained explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel. Its assault on civilians, including women and children in their homes, set back by decades efforts by Palestinians to foreground non-violent resistance and win international support, and triggers the worst historical memories of Israelis and Jewish communities around the world, even as anti-Semitic attacks surge internationally. Israeli opinion on a ground invasion and hostage diplomacy has nonetheless been quite varied.
Meanwhile, as Gaza is under an unprecedented bombardment and siege, Palestinians are uniting in their opposition to the onslaught – or indeed trying to survive it – rather than turning on Hamas. Israel’s decision to deprive the entire enclave of water, electricity and food has meant no civilians in Gaza can escape the impacts of the war, resulting in a traumatised and wounded population. It also highlights Gaza’s near-total dependence on Israel, as Gaza remains legally under occupation and has no control over its borders, sea access or airspace.. US officials were reported as telling the Wall Street Journal that they had asked Israel to turn Gaza’s internet back on after a communications blackout, but this raised questions of how and why the US should be deciding whether the population needs the internet more than water.
If Israel’s political aim is to isolate and overthrow Hamas, the perception of collective punishment has not achieved that in the past and seems unlikely to do so now.
In this context, the immediate need to protect civilians is also a strategic imperative, directly linked to the need to keep doors open for a future political settlement. Looking to the longer term, Europe should commit to a new political process to address both Israeli and Palestinian needs at the political level, in line with its stated principles. Right now, they should emphasise the protection of civilians in Israel, Gaza (including the basic needs of the population for water and food, and in the case of the hostages, calling via Qatar and Turkey for ICRC access to them, proof of life, and an end to hostage videos), and in the West Bank, where killings and evictions of Palestinians have been taking place with apparent impunity.
When people hear European diplomats saying “two-state solution”, they hear a kind of code for doing nothing. A strategic vacuum has arisen over recent years, as the two-state solution has lost credibility on the ground, and has become physically and geographically further out of reach. Whatever the shape of a future strategy for peace, it will need to include some way to share the land; to recognise the simultaneous claims to Jerusalem as the centre of three world religions (an issue which has been sidelined by the US in particular); and a solution to the refugee problem (which probably involves moral recognition of the right of return plus choices for compensation and resettlement). The longstanding nature of the refugee problem also indicates that the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza – mooted by a number of Israeli commentators and at least one minor Israeli government ministry – would hardly make the issue disappear.
The past failures need to be learnt from and not seen as evidence that all future ones will fail too. Europe needs to help create space for strategising for peace. Jane Kinninmont
There is a long history of previous opportunities being lost in this conflict, which can be debated almost endlessly. The long and tortuous history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are affected by human contingencies such as miscalculations (“if we hold out, they’ll give us more!”), failures of leadership to bring populations along (“they’ll kill me for this!”), and, of course, US election cycles that have created arbitrary timescales for the main mediator. There is also a recurring problem that the international community only becomes seized of the issue when it turns violent. The past failures need to be learnt from and not seen as evidence that all future ones will fail too. Perhaps key players would do things differently if they could do so now. Over the decades, Israeli and Palestinian public opinion on peace, land, and the two-state solution has changed and evolved; it has not been a total or permanent refusal, and many who reject two states do so because they believe the other side won’t agree to it.
EU support for future strategy should include investment in track two work by strategically minded Israelis and Palestinians, a small number of whom are trying to work on this even now; going beyond the traditional peace camp to include former military and former militants; and bolstered by experts with diplomatic and lived experience of what has happened in different contexts after ethnic violence and decolonisation, who may at present need to look to experiences from Bosnia and Rwanda as well as Northern Ireland and South Africa. Europe needs to help create space for strategising for peace. Otherwise, the people who want the other side to be expelled will appear to be the only ones with a long-term vision.
Global and regional ramifications
Globally, the war in Gaza has diverted attention from Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, while Russia, which has sometimes been a mediator, is loudly blaming the US. Meanwhile, Europe’s response is complicating its efforts to make the case internationally for adherence to international law and – especially – international humanitarian law, which applies to the way that war is conducted, regardless of whether the reason for the war is accepted as just. A number of governments seem to be confusing support for international law with weakness. This matters profoundly when Europe has spent the last 18 months trying to persuade the rest of the world to stand up for Ukraine based on universal values, the UN charter, sovereignty and democracy.
European governments are clear that Hamas’s attack on civilians in Israel is unacceptable. But most of them have found it harder to speak up for the protection of Palestinian civilians or to say that Palestinians also have claims to future statehood and renewed democracy. Over the past three weeks, a broader spectrum of European views have been voiced but struggle to be heard in a political context where social media magnifies the most simplistic versions of the strongest views, and where the ceasefire arguments at the UN have had no impact on the ground.
It is evident that the various normalisation and détente processes underway in the Middle East have largely ignored the Palestinian issue, leaving Palestinian leaders as “spoilers” rather than stakeholders. One positive element in all of this is that more regional leaders are talking to each other – including the Saudi and Iranian leaders – which means there are more channels that Europe can work with in attempting to save civilian lives now, to bring back a political horizon for the day after, and to try to prevent horizontal escalation across the region. The possibility of further normalisation with Israel remains an incentive that Arab countries can put on the table for a future political solution, while Western countries can offer recognition of a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, though, there is an intense wave of anger in Arab countries. The foreign minister of Jordan, a close ally of the US and Europe, has warned of a risk that people in the Arab world will interpret Gaza as a proxy war by the West on all of them. It combines with local frustrations with governments, corruption, unemployment, the waves of wars and refugees. Europe must watch the potential for serious disturbance in Egypt – where the last two presidents were overthrown by a combination of street protests and military connivance, albeit in different ways each time – and Jordan.
The war has the potential to grow into a US-Israel conflict with Iran and its non-state allies in the region, which European countries would also be pulled into. Jane Kinninmont
Finally, this conflict is interlinked with the simmering regional conflict between Israel on the one hand, and Iran and its regional allies on the other. That also poses risks to nuclear diplomacy, though it is too early to fully assess this. The war has the potential to grow into a US-Israel conflict with Iran and its non-state allies in the region, which European countries would also be pulled into – and which Arab leaders are working hard to try to prevent. As Hizbollah and Israel trade blows and test boundaries, the question is whether both Iran and Israel want to keep their powder dry for a possible future confrontation or whether they may see the regional tumult as an opportunity to strike an adversary (whether Iran encouraging Hizbollah to attack Israel; Israel striking Hizbollah; or possibly the long-discussed idea of Israeli airstrikes on facilities for Iran’s nuclear programme though that may not be logistically feasible given the programme’s dispersed nature).
If the conflict does spiral into a regional war that people have imagined but managed to prevent for many years, then one of its many ramifications could be to eclipse – though not eradicate – the core issues between Israelis and Palestinians. Progress now on agreeing a ceasefire, releasing hostages, and providing humanitarian relief – linked to a political strategy and based on the protection and equal value of all civilians – would greatly improve the political prospects for the future. This conflict is close to home for Europeans. That’s all the more reason for European governments to show leadership.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.
Image: Wikimedia commons, M0tty