European Reactions to Israel’s Gaza Operation

, January 29, 2009

Vol. 8, No. 20   January 29, 2009

  • Many countries such as Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic showed understanding for Israel and described Israel’s actions as self-defense. These countries generally used strong language against Hamas and demanded that it stop the rocket attacks unconditionally.
  • At the time of the start of the Israeli airstrikes, the European presidency was held by France. On December 27, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union condemned both the Israeli air raids and the Palestinian rocket strikes on Israel from Gaza and called for an immediate end to these activities. The statement also condemned the disproportionate use of force.
  • As of January 1, 2009, the Czech Republic took over the role of the Presidency of the European Union. On January 3, the presidency described the Israeli ground operations as an act of self-defense.
  • This drew heavy criticism from many European countries, and the Czechs apologized for the “misunderstanding” and issued a new statement, but one that did not call for an “immediate” ceasefire. In diplomatic language there is a significant difference between “as soon as possible” and “immediate.”
  • France has been traditionally the main driving force behind European foreign policy. The separate Sarkozy visit to Israel and his humanitarian ceasefire proposal showed that France was not ready to relinquish its positions to the Czech Republic.
  • The Czech positions during Israel’s Gaza operation indicate that the current presidency will work toward a more favorable international environment for Israel. However, Israel should try to make the most of it, since the upcoming Swedish presidency, which starts on July 1, 2009, will most likely be a more difficult time for Israel.

While the European Union is striving to achieve consensus in the international arena, this is traditionally the most difficult when it comes to the Middle East and especially to Israel. The EU is often split on anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Commission on Human Rights and its successor, the Human Rights Council, and EU member states reacted diversely to the Second Lebanon War. The wide range of reactions to Israel’s Gaza operation reflected the same pattern. In such a divided environment, the role of the Presidency of the European Union becomes very important in drafting statements and setting the agenda.

Critical Voices

Ireland’s attitude has been by far the least favorable towards Israel. Immediately after the launching of Israeli airstrikes, Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin condemned them in the “strongest terms,” calling them “devastating.” He called on Israel to halt its airstrikes – what he described as “offensive operations” – immediately. He also condemned the firing of rockets into Israeli territory.1 Martin described the Israeli ground operation as “indiscriminate attacks” and he stated that the continuation of the operation “cannot be justified in any way and must now be brought to an immediate end.”2
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt described the Israeli airstrikes as a “serious continuation of the escalation of the tension.” He acknowledged that Hamas refused to renew the ceasefire, however, stating that “although this ceasefire did not live up to expectations – particularly with regard to alleviating the Israeli blockade of Gaza – it would have been better for everyone if it had continued to be respected.” He also described Israel’s policy to isolate Hamas-run Gaza as “counterproductive.”3
Bildt also claimed that the isolation of Gaza created the need to smuggle in products and that smuggling “creates better opportunities to bring in weapons.”4 In these statements he seems to be blaming Israeli policies for the terrorism that occurs from Gaza and he downplays the responsibility of Hamas.

The “Mainstream”

Most European countries were clear about placing the responsibility for the situation on Hamas. However, many of these countries called for an immediate ceasefire and/or described the Israeli airstrikes as “disproportionate.”
The Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation issued a communiqué which represented the general attitude of the majority of EU countries. Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos “called for an immediate stop to the violence. The Ministry has insisted that violence does not constitute a valid solution to the situation. He has expressed his firm condemnation of the irresponsible provocation on the part of Hamas in launching rocket attacks, as well as the Israeli Armed Forces’ disproportionate retaliation.”5
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown at first only called on Israel to show restraint, without requesting an end to the operation. Two days later, however, he urged an immediate ceasefire.6 On January 6, Brown defined Gaza as a “humanitarian crisis.”7

Supportive Voices

Many countries such as Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic showed understanding for Israel and described Israel’s actions as self-defense. These countries generally used strong language against Hamas and demanded that it stop the rocket attacks unconditionally.
On December 27, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini expressed his deep concern for the situation developing in Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ violation of the ceasefire and Israel’s subsequent retaliation. Condemning in no uncertain terms the indiscriminate and unjustified launching of Kassam rockets by Hamas against the defenseless civilian Israeli population, and calling for its immediate cessation, at the same time Frattini urged Israel to consider, in exercising its legitimate right to self-defense, the difficult situation in Gaza and the need to protect innocent human lives.8

In an interview with La Repubblica, he added:

What Hamas has done is something much more serious than simply violating the truce by launching rockets against Israel. It has violated the “land for peace” principle according to which the Palestinians got Gaza back from Sharon and which, with the restitution of the West Bank, should lead to the creation of a Palestinian state – but for peace. That’s why, in my opinion, Hamas is not only a terrorist group but an organization that deeply undermines the fair creation of a Palestinian state.9
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that “the Federal Government can in no way accept that Hamas has unilaterally renounced the ceasefire with Israel. Hamas must immediately and permanently stop the intolerable missile attacks on Israel.”10 Chancellor Angela Merkel made Hamas responsible for the escalation. She described Israel’s actions as legitimate.11

Czech Republic Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg also showed his support for Israel, saying, “Why am I one of the few that have expressed understanding for Israel?…I am enjoying the luxury of telling the truth.”12

After the ground operation took place, countries of this group remained supportive of Israel and focused on the need to work for a durable ceasefire that would reflect Israeli concerns. The German Foreign Minister claimed that “this ceasefire must guarantee Israel’s security on a durable basis. Not only will Hamas have to finally end its missile attacks but the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip will also have to be reliably prevented.”13

From the French Presidency to the Czech Presidency

At the time of the start of the Israeli airstrikes, the European presidency was held by France. On December 27, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union condemned both the Israeli air raids and the Palestinian rocket strikes on Israel from Gaza and called for an immediate end to these activities. The statement also condemned the disproportionate use of force.14

On December 30, the foreign ministers of the EU held a meeting in Paris where they called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, meaning the “unconditional halt to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel and an end to Israeli military action.”15 The statement also called for the reopening of all border crossings.

As of January 1, 2009, the Czech Republic took over the role of the Presidency of the European Union. On January 3, the presidency described the Israeli ground operations as an act of self-defense.16 This drew heavy criticism from many European countries, and the Czechs apologized for the “misunderstanding” and issued a new statement:
It is not surprising that the Israeli forces have launched land operations in the Gaza Strip. There were indications that Israel had been considering this step. But even the indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians. We call for the facilitation of humanitarian aid to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, and in accordance with the position agreed by the EU Foreign Ministers in Paris on 30 December 2008 we call for the establishment of a ceasefire.17
The fact of the withdrawal of the original proclamation was widely covered in the international press. However, there was not much coverage of the second statement. Even though the first statement, calling Israeli ground operations as an act of self-defense, had to be withdrawn, the second statement also talks about the indisputable right of the state to defend itself. The need for protection of civilians and facilitation of humanitarian aid are principles that Israel has safeguarded throughout the fighting. The statement also calls for the establishment of a ceasefire instead of an immediate ceasefire. The statement of the Czech presidency after the ground operation commenced was much more favorable towards Israel than that of the French presidency, published on the first day of the Israeli airstrikes, which condemned them and called for an immediate ceasefire. Only the day after the acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 1860 on January 8 did the EU presidency statement explicitly call for “immediate cessation of military action on both sides.”18

In the week after the ground operations started there were two diplomatic missions to Israel and other countries of the Middle East. French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the region and called for a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire that was not accepted by Israel. The European delegation headed by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg came without any proposals.

At a press conference attended by the delegation and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Schwarzenberg opened by stating: “I’m very happy to be here in Jerusalem and in Eretz Israel twice in one month.” Then he explained that this time he was leading the EU delegation and he was a spokesman for 27 countries. He stated that a ceasefire had to be established “as soon as possible.” In diplomatic language, of course, there is a significant difference between “as soon as possible” and “immediate.” He added that, “of course, the rocket attacks on Israel have to stop first.”19

Indicating the different approaches within the European Union, Schwarzenberg mentioned that the members of the delegation – EU Secretary General Javier Solana, Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner – brought a “broad spectrum” of views to the attention of Livni.20

France has been traditionally the main driving force behind European foreign policy. The separate Sarkozy visit and the humanitarian ceasefire proposal showed that France was not ready to relinquish its positions to the Czech Republic. When it comes to foreign policy, small and medium-size countries of the EU have often taken a low-key approach and left these issues to European great powers such as France, Germany, and the UK. However, the EU statement reflecting the Czech positions, the EU delegation’s visit, and the statement of the Czech foreign minister indicate that the Czechs are serious about being the leaders of the European Union.

After Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire, six European heads of state and government visited Israel: Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero. Though the visit was a display of European unity and showing support and understanding for Israel, the various leaders expressed themselves in different ways. Topolanek put the emphasis on Israel’s right to self-defense and showed much understanding, while Berlusconi declared that “when we heard about the renewal of rocket fire which landed on Israeli homes, we truly felt that this was a danger we all faced, a danger threatening the entire Western world”21 and “your hardships are our hardships.”22 He even predicted that “one day Israel can be one of the member countries in the European Union.”23

Though Sarkozy reminded listeners that all his political life he “felt and lived as a friend of Israel,”24 he nonetheless was more reserved than Berlusconi. He reminded everyone that “we did not support Israel’s actions in Gaza.”25 Zapatero took a much harder line on Israel than his counterparts. He revisited the old falsehood that “peace here means peace worldwide,”26 implying that regional instability in the Middle East was tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Subsequently, when he retold the story of Europe’s role in the Gaza conflict, he said that the EU had decided “to demand from Israel to keep the ceasefire and withdraw from Gaza.”27 It was Israel that faced “strong international pressure,”28 he explained, while Syria, along with Turkey and other Arab states, had made contributions to stabilizing the situation.

Since Czech-Israel relations are often described as the strongest between Israel and any European country, there is a possibility of further improvement in European-Israeli ties during the Czech presidency, since the presidency plays an important role in setting the agenda for the Council and the attitudes of the president are strongly reflected in EU statements as well.

In 2009, Israel is facing critical international challenges such as the Iranian nuclear threat and the upcoming Durban II anti-racism conference in Geneva in April, where Israel is hoping many Western countries will boycott the conference. The Czech positions during Israel’s Gaza operation indicate that the current presidency will work toward a more favorable international environment for Israel in order to successfully tackle these challenges. However, Israel should try to make the most of it, since the upcoming Swedish presidency, which starts on July 1, 2009, will most likely be a more difficult time for Israel.

Notes

1. “Minister for Foreign Affairs Condemns Israeli Air Strikes Against Gaza,” Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland, 28 December 2008.
2. “Minister for Foreign Affairs Condemns Latest Atrocity in the Gaza Conflict,” Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland, 6 January 2009.
3. “Carl Bildt: Break the Isolation of Gaza,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Swedish Government Offices, 29 December 2008.
4. “Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt on the Situation in Gaza,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Swedish Government Offices, 8 January 2009.
5. “Communiqué on Today’s Events in Gaza,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Spain, 27 December 2008.
6. “No. 10 ‘Appalled’ at Gaza Violence,” BBC News, 29 December 2008.
7. “Gaza Is a Humanitarian Crisis – PM,” Number10.gov.uk, The official site of the Prime Minister’s Office, 6 January 2009.
8. “Minister Frattini on the Gaza Strip Crisis,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy, 27 December 2008.
9. “Interview with Minister Frattini: ‘Immediate Truce, a Divided Europe Can Do Nothing’,” La Repubblica, 5 January 2009. [From the English translation of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.]
10. “Federal Minister Steinmeier is Concerned about the Situation in the Gaza Strip,” Federal Foreign Office, Germany, 27 December 2009.
11. “Merkel macht Hamas für Eskalation verantwortlich,” Welt Online, 29 December 2008.
12. “Czechs, Next EU President, Defend Israeli Strikes,” Reuters, Ynet News, 30 December 2008.
13. “Federal Minister Steinmeier Very Concerned about Further Escalation in Gaza,” Federal Foreign Office, Germany, 4 January 2009.
14. “Declaration by the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on the Violence in Gaza,” Presidency of the Council, 27 December 2008.
15. “Statement by the European Union on the Situation in the Middle East,” European Council, 30 December 2008.
16. “Gaza EU Statement Is a Misunderstanding, Says Czech Minister,” European Jewish Press, 4 January 2009.
17. “Official EU Presidency Statement Concerning the Situation in the Middle East,” Czech Presidency of the European Union, 4 January 2009.
18. “EU Presidency Statement on the Middle East,” Czech Presidency of the European Union, 9 January 2009.
19. “Joint Press Conference with FM Livni and EU Representatives,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 5 January 2009.
20. Ibid.
21. “Joint Statements by the PM and the European Leaders,” Prime Minister’s Office, Israel, 18 January 2009.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. “Entrevista al Presidente del Gobierno en el programa ‘Hoy por hoy,’ de la Cadena SER,” [Interview with the Prime Minister in the "Hoy por hoy" program of the Cadena SER], Government of Spain, 19 January 2009.
28. Ibid.

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Tamas Berzi is project coordinator of the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He holds an MA in international relations from Corvinus University of Budapest and an MA in political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

About Tamas Berzi

Tamas Berzi holds an MA in International Relations from Corvinus University, Budapest, Hungary, and an MA in Political Sciences from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He coordinates the Israel Advocacy project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.