Since the October 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel that killed more than 1,400 people, European leaders have paraded through Tel Aviv in what appears to be a turning point in support for Israel.
The heads of the governments of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece and Italy have taken turns standing beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past few days.
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“In such difficult times, there is only one place we can be: at Israel’s side,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, while visiting 10 days after the Hamas attack.
Yet the visits represent a more complex diplomatic calculation than the photo ops might suggest, say analysts. On the one hand, the trips underscore a shift in Europe’s readiness to publicly back Israel. On the other hand, the visits reflect an unease over the implications for regional security and the fears of another refugee crisis if the war escalates, as is expected with an imminent Israeli ground invasion – one that Europe wants Netanyahu to be careful about rushing into.
“It’s the first time [Israel] is getting such EU support. It’s a watershed,” said George Tzogopoulos, an expert in international relations at the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).
European statements on Israel have traditionally been cautious, urging a two-state solution and arguing against anything that could escalate attacks on either side.
Since October 7, Europe’s tone has shifted.
“We will destroy Hamas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a week after the attack as Israeli forces cleared Hamas fighters from Israeli territory and began to go on the counteroffensive with preliminary raids into Gaza. “This is only the beginning,” he said.
The European Union first threatened to cut off aid for Palestinians. While it eventually decided against that approach, the bloc’s chief, Ursula von der Leyen, has been unequivocal in her support for Israel, even as the bombing of Gaza has killed more than 7,000 people, and an Israeli siege of the strip has forced many hospitals to shut down. Von der Leyen’s position has drawn criticism from hundreds of EU staffers.
“I think the Western leaders are expressing their absolute, sincere, unapologetic support for Israel’s war with Hamas,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, told Al Jazeera.
Tziampiris said there is “no doubt” that a ground war will happen. “It’s a question not of if, but when and how,” he said.
That is where Europe wants to try and influence Israel.
In the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack, Europe, Tziampiris said, fears “future attacks, in Israel with a potential spillover effect in other regions”.
Spillover effects could include attacks in Europe, a refugee crisis, or both. It has happened before. Three simultaneous suicide attacks in the northern Paris suburbs killed 130 people in November 2015, and it was later found that two of the attackers had entered Europe through the Greek island of Lesvos as asylum seekers.
“Southern European countries, like Italy and Greece, are concerned about the ramifications of a wider regional war involving Iran that could create a massive refugee crisis,” Emmanuel Karagiannis, senior associate professor of international security at King’s College London told Al Jazeera.
But Europeans and Americans also want to put old feuds to rest, he said.
“American and European leaders are firm supporters of the Abraham Accords normalising relations between Israel and some Arab countries,” said Karagiannis. “The current war in Gaza jeopardises the ongoing peace process in the Middle East at a time when the West needs to confront Russia in Ukraine and deter China over Taiwan.”
The balance sought by Europe therefore appears to be a destruction of Hamas that avoids reseeding hatred and leading to a new cycle of violence. So, EU leaders have laced their solidarity with advice – to show restraint and humanity.
“Civilian casualties and regional escalation must be prevented,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote on X, formerly Twitter, after meeting Netanyahu. “This requires restraint from Israel when it comes to the use of force.”
The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have called for “humanitarian pauses” to allow medicine, food and fuel into Gaza, where hospitals are reported to have run out of supplies.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has called for a pause in the war to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Eye on the future
Israel has allowed a few aid trucks in through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, but Gaza’s Ministry of Health and international aid groups say water and other basic needs are not being met.
The United States, traditionally Israel’s staunchest ally, has also urged restraint.
US President Joe Biden said he “cautioned the government of Israel not to be blinded by rage” during a visit on October 18.
“After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes,” Biden said.
Optimists see an opportunity in this crisis for the international community to play a more constructive role.
The world, Tziamparis said, might have an opportunity to rebuild Gaza with “more democracy, more rights, more growth” while also ensuring security guarantees for Israel.
EU leaders appear to acknowledge that however the war plays out, when it ends, Israel and Palestinian leaders will need to sit down for talks to coexist.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the fight against Hamas “must be without mercy but not without rules” and repeated the need for a two-state solution. So did Rutte. “Peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians is only possible if prospects for a Palestinian state, alongside a secure Israel, are renewed,” he wrote on X.
Whether Netanyahu heeds their messages might soon become clear.