‘The battleground is Palestine’: Israel’s war looms over European elections

EU insiders and voters say many will be backing parties that are supportive of Gaza.

People take part in a protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, as the conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Brussels, Belgium, November 11, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman
People take part in a protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza in Brussels, Belgium [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]

Brussels, BelgiumElections for the European Parliament traditionally focus on issues such as the cost of living, farm policies, climate change and the European Union’s migration policy.

But as the continent prepared for this week’s critical votes, a new topic surged to the forefront – Palestine.

How EU politicians are addressing Israel’s war on Gaza, violence in the occupied West Bank and the future of Palestine has become a central theme driving political discourse and voters’ choices in the 27-nation bloc.

“Personally, I perceive it [Palestine] as a crucial factor that allows voters to see the true colours of the parties they support,” said Maruska, ​​who has Slovene-Italian roots and will be voting in this year’s EU elections for the first time.

“I will be voting from Germany, and there is only one party who is vocal about the cause – MeRA25,” she added, referring to the leftist, pro-Palestine European political group.

For Thomas Maddens, a filmmaker and activist based in Belgium, Palestine is a subject of colonial dynamics that he said politicians in Europe should address in light of the continent’s history.

“For me, if you can’t get it right on Palestine, I’m not going to vote for you,” he told Al Jazeera.

About 373 million people are eligible to vote in the elections being held from Thursday to Sunday. They will elect 720 members of the European Parliament. Besides playing a crucial role in shaping EU policies, these lawmakers also elect the bloc’s top leaders, such as the foreign policy chief and president of the European Commission.

Marc Botenga of Belgium’s leftist Workers’ Party and an EU lawmaker campaigning to hold his seat, said: “While travelling around the country to campaign, I’ve seen people talking about classic election topics like purchasing power, climate change and migration. But this year, discussions over Palestine has been a central topic.”

He added: “I think EU citizens have seen how establishment politicians really like to speak about Ukraine and say how much the bloc really needs to support Ukraine, give them weapons and money to win the war. But then with Palestine, there has been a degree of hypocrisy and double standards. People want this to end. So how politicians address Palestine will influence the European elections.”

EU elections
Marc Botenga, third from left, of Belgium’s leftist Workers’ Party and an EU lawmaker, takes part in a pro-Palestine protest in Belgium [Courtesy of Workers’ Party]

Johannes Fehr, one of the leading German candidates for MeRA25, said many Europeans want to be on the right side of history while voting this year.

“Many people want their EU leaders to stop supporting the genocide in Gaza as well as the possibility to vote for a truly international option that represents not only people from one country but from everywhere,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We are a pro-Palestine party, and in Germany, we have seen a lot of pushback from basically all the major parties, starting from the Palestine Congress to our Free Palestine posters that are constantly torn down and even burned. But we are not giving up.”

‘Europeans represented better by Macklemore than European Commission’

The war in Gaza and tensions in the West Bank have seen millions of people in the EU and globally protesting for months for a ceasefire.

In Brussels, even diplomats and staff members of EU institutions have taken to the streets.

“It’s quite unusual to have civil servants protesting like this,” an EU official told Al Jazeera. “But the sickening horror of what Israel is doing in Palestine is difficult to ignore.”

The conflict, as well as the recognition of Palestine as a state, have become something of a litmus test for the European elections, according to a European Parliament staff member.

“Candidates who talk about human rights and climate justice in their campaigns but remain silent on [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s actions in Gaza reveal inconsistencies in their political agenda and prove we [the EU] are still far from addressing intersectionality of social, civic and environmental rights,” the staffer told Al Jazeera.

“Ukraine was an easy moral win for centrist European politicians. They were happy criticising the war crimes of a belligerent neighbouring power when it was Russia. But when it was Israel killing civilians, suddenly they couldn’t find their voice,” another EU official said.

“Europeans find themselves better represented by Macklemore than the European Commission.”

At least 36,586 Palestinians have been killed and 83,074 wounded in Gaza since October 7 in Israel’s assault, by far its deadliest war on the enclave.

The campaign began after Hamas, which governs Gaza, sharply escalated the historic conflict by launching incursions into southern Israel during which 1,139 people were killed and more than 200 were taken captive.

The European Parliament has called for “an unconditional ceasefire” and for Israel to open all humanitarian aid crossings into Gaza.

Meanwhile, EU members Spain, Ireland and Slovenia have announced their decisions to recognise Palestine as a state.

“Foreign affairs is often a political football in the EU parliament. Political groups like Spanish right-wing politicians often bring Latin American countries onto the European Parliament agenda as a way of trying to embarrass the Left and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats [S&D] party. But over the past few months, increasingly the battleground is Palestine,” an EU diplomat told Al Jazeera.

“Post the elections, I don’t think it’s going to be a case of ‘I’m Israel, you’re Palestine’, but rather politicians who are in favour of international law vs those who are willing to defend a genocide,” the diplomat added.

EU lawmakers currently sit in the parliament as seven political groups – the S&D, European People’s Party (EPP), Renew Europe, Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA), European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), Identity and Democracy (ID) and The Left.

According to Hussein Baoumi, foreign policy advocate at Amnesty International, politicians from left-leaning parties have been vocal about Palestine in election campaigns.

Meanwhile, EU lawmakers from right-leaning political groups have taken either a cautious stance or refrained from commenting on the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

EU elections
A protester in Brussels demanding a ceasefire in Gaza criticises European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen [Courtesy of protester]

“If you look at European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s campaign video, it is clear that she is trying to distance herself from the war in Gaza and hasn’t posted any pictures from her meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials,” he told Al Jazeera.

“However for voters in the continent, while the Palestine factor is important, domestic issues like cost of living and Russia’s war in Ukraine are more urgent. The war in Gaza will neither make nor break the European elections,” Baoumi predicted.

But for Marco, a voter in Belgium, “Europe’s legitimacy and credibility is at stake.”

“Good luck explaining to voters why we need to support Ukraine’s right to self-determination while denying the same right to Palestinians and arming the oppressor. This sort of double standard is hard to ignore,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera