The surprise offensive by Hamas on 7 October, which has already killed more than 800 Israelis, and left over 400 Palestinians dead in Gaza after initial Israeli military reprisals, marks a significant turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With Palestinian fighters over-running Israeli population centres and military bases for the first time since the country’s founding and Israel seeking military retribution, the brutal assault threatens to escalate further.
A deeper war is now coming, one that could potentially also ignite conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and impede Arab normalisation with Israel. Current prospects for de-escalatory diplomacy are close to non-existent with neither party likely to pursue a diplomatic track or return to the status quo ante.
How Europeans should respond
Europeans need to focus on ensuring that the war does not spiral out of control and potentially fuel a regional conflict. They should:
- Show solidarity with Israelis but emphasise that Israel’s right to self-defence must comply with international humanitarian law. A full ground invasion and disproportionate attacks against Palestinian civilians will have far-reaching and destabilising consequences for Israelis and Palestinians, including by increasing wider support for Palestinian armed resistance and risking involvement by Hezbollah.
- Work with those who have some influence over Hamas, particularly Egypt and Qatar, to similarly warn against its deliberate targeting and detention of Israelis – which is also against Islamic law.
- Support efforts to facilitate the immediate release of civilian hostages and open humanitarian channels to support Gaza’s population.
- Work to prevent wider violence in Israel and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). They should oppose any effort by far-right Israeli politicians to use current events as cover to pursue their Greater Israel agenda, or by settler militias to exact revenge on Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
- Recognise that the Palestinian Authority (PA) remains completely peripheral to ongoing events. Pushing President Mahmoud Abbas to clamp down on Hamas and other groups will fail and, in the current context, could easily precipitate a Palestinian civil war in the West Bank, which the PA would lose. European governments must also resist counter-productive measures, including cutting PA funding and other forms of financial support for Palestinians, which would intensify the socio-economic and political damage to the occupied territories and increase the influence of militant groups.
- Focus on warning all parties, including Iran, against expanding the conflict to other theatres, which would risk a dangerous regional escalation. Europeans should boost the capacities and presence of UNIFIL – the United Nation’s monitoring mission in Lebanon – along the southern border with Israel.
The bigger picture
Moving forward, Europeans need to strategically reassess their approach towards the longstanding conflict, as the current violence is not occurring in a vacuum. Europeans should work with the United States and Arab partners to map out a political vision that meaningfully acknowledges and responds to the core dynamics feeding the current escalation. This cannot exclude Palestinians in the belief that regional normalisation with Israel can secure long-term peace. Any sustainable solution must include a central Israeli-Palestinian political track that ensures the human rights and self-determination of Palestinians. Recent developments show that neither of the two parties can initiate the requisite political track. International actors, including Europeans, need to urgently re-engage and advance a reinvigorated peace process.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.