A week into the Israel-Hamas war, the EU continues to struggle with its messaging

A solemn moment to honour the Israelis killed by Hamas days bafore was held in front the the European Parliament in Brussels on October 11, 2023.
A solemn moment to honour the Israelis killed by Hamas days bafore was held in front the the European Parliament in Brussels on October 11, 2023. Copyright EC - Audiovisual Service
By Shona Murray
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The European Union's hitherto solid defence of international law is under question following Brussels' reaction to how Israel is responding to the deadly attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas.


It's been a particularly bad few days for the European Commission whose week started with a disastrous communication debacle over aid to Palestinians and ended with accusations of double standards over how it labels what is currently unfolding in the Middle East and the events of the past 600 days in Ukraine. 

Comments by the institution's chief, Ursula von der Leyen, over how Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure "especially electricity" constitute "war crimes" have proved particularly contentious. 

"Cutting off men, women, children of water electricity and heating with winter coming is pure terror," she wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in October last year. "And we have to call it a such".

Asked this week why the EU's executive was not similarly labeling Israel's decision to cut off electricity in the Gaza Strip a war crime, Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer argued the context was different so the comparison was not applicable.

"You are discussing a comment made in one very, very specific context where there was an unprovoked attack by a country - furthermore a member of the UN Security Council - against a peaceful neighbour, and the situation we're experiencing now, where I remind you there are continuing to be attacks from Gaza towards Israel."

"And where therefore Israel is in a situation where it is defending itself in an extremely complex theatre of operations. Therefore we here cannot judge what are the exact actions that need to be taken in order for Israel to fight the Hamas terrorists which have attacked its territory."

'The right to self-defence'

The EU, which considers Hamas a terrorist outfit, was swift to condemn the attack by the organisation carried out last Saturday in which over 1,200 Israelis were murdered. Over 100, including babies, were also kidnapped with their fate as well as health and well-being still unknown as demands for their release have gone unanswered. 

The bloc has also strongly supported Israel's right to self-defense, adding that any retaliation had to be proportionate and in respect of international humanitarian law.

But actions by the Israeli military have escalated concerns for the two million people hemmed into a tiny exclave. Israel declared a "complete siege" saying electricity, food, fuel and water were being cut off.

“The emphasis is on damage, and not on accuracy,” said Israeli government spokesperson, Daniel Hagari on Tuesday.

Then on Friday, Israel gave 24 hours for inhabitants of Gaza to leave the north of the exclave before a wave of ferocious bombing is unleashed.

Humanitarian organisations have been raising the alarm, including the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who described himself as "deeply distressed" by Israel's siege.

The situation in Gaza, he added, is "extremely dire" as a result of the Israeli blockade of Gaza before Hamas's attack, saying it will "only deteriorate exponentially."

UNICEF deplored the deaths of "hundreds and hundreds" of children and said "hospitals are utterly overwhelmed to treat "those with injuries" including "horrendous burns, mortar wounds, and lost limbs."

"The humanitarian situation has reached lethal lows, and yet all reports point to further attacks. Compassion – and international law – must prevail," a spokesperson added.

Norway also condemned the "unacceptable" siege of Gaza by the Israeli army, and announced additional humanitarian aid to the city's residents.

By Friday, the number of Palestinians killed by Israel had surpassed 1,700. Thousands more are injured.

'Civilians must be protected'

Accusations that the EU is not equating the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians with those of innocent Israeli citizens, regardless of the fact that all civilians - especially children, have special status under international humanitarian law - grew louder


In response, Mamer of the Commission said "protection of civilians is of utmost importance" and that Palestinian civilians "must be pre-warned and alerted" of incoming air strikes, thus allowing them to leave the area. He noted that Israel had done that.

He also said the bloc is "encouraging the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow deliveries of much needed humanitarian aid, including allowing access to food, water and medicines in accordance with international humanitarian war" and that von der Leyen had spoken to a number of regional leaders.

But a source close to the delegation who spoke to Euronews on condition of anonymity said the Commission President was "less interested" about talking to her Israeli partners about trying to limit civilian casualties while on a trip to Israel.

In footage shared of her trip, she can be heard saying that she is "very grateful that you said very clearly that Hamas are terrorists but that we have to care for the Palestinian people and humanitarian needs".

But she made no mention of civilians or of the responsibility of the Israeli government to spare their lives as much as possible in a statement delivered alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


"Hamas' acts have nothing to do with the legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people," she said. "On the contrary, the horror that Hamas has unleashed is only bringing more suffering upon innocent Palestinians. They are threatened, too. Hamas' despicable actions are the hallmark of terrorists. And I know that how Israel responds will show that it is a democracy."

Her Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, was however more explicit, writing on X shortly after her intervention from Israel that "civilians must be protected", and that "critical infrastructure must not be targeted".

It was the second time in a matter of days that the Slovenian official stepped in to unequivocally champion EU humanitarian support to Palestinians.

Earlier in the week, he was the first in the EU's executive to provide some clarification after Olivér Várhelyi, the Commissioner in charge of enlargement and neighbourhood, unilaterally announced the EU was suspending aid to Palestinians, triggering confusion as to whether this included humanitarian assistance too and creating a diplomatic row among member states.

The Commission instead took more than five hours to release a statement in which it announced an "urgent review" of the hundreds of millions of euros in development aid it provides to Palestinians. It justified the move by the need to be particularly vigilant that none of that money could fall into the hands of Hamas.


Journalist • Shona Murray

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