Why Europe needs a rights-based policy after the Gaza conflict

ECFR council members call on Europe to push forward a rights-based policy to break the cycle of conflict in Israel-Palestine

A building heavily damaged during recent Israeli strikes, on June 1, 2021, in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Majdi Fathi

Should there have been any doubt, the latest war has once again shown that there can be no military solution for Gaza or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. The fighting serves as a brutal reminder that, unless the sides resolve the fundamental causes of the long-running conflict, there will continue to be outbreaks of violence – each one of which turns back the clock on Gaza and risks a wider conflagration in a deepening one-state reality. The recent announcement of a fragile ceasefire agreement is an important step, but it will not be enough if it merely restores the conflict to a broken status quo and Palestinians in Gaza to an unliveable and hopeless existence.

These events highlight the need for Europeans to step up. The Biden administration, facing numerous foreign policy challenges, has made clear that it will not prioritise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond its current burst of diplomatic activity in support of ceasefire arrangements. If Europeans want to prevent further violence and advance a solution that respects both Israeli and Palestinian rights, they will need to bring their own political weight to bear on the conflict rather than forever depend on the United States. This would no doubt be welcomed by the White House.

European and other international donors have pledged significant recovery funds to Gaza – which is to be commended. However, to break the cycle of conflict, European states and the European Union should drive forward a rights-based political response that goes beyond narrow humanitarian aid and reconstruction support. This is the only pathway towards a sustainable solution for Gaza and genuine Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts.

Working with key partners, including in the Arab world, European diplomats should gear their efforts towards creating the foundations of substantive talks between Israel and Palestine. This will require Palestinian leaders to engage in political reform and restore democratic governance, most notably to the national institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Throughout the recent conflict, the Palestinian Authority (PA) remained on the sidelines. Returning PA governance to Gaza is a worthy goal. But this will be hampered by the PA’s increasingly autocratic nature and its loss of popular legitimacy following President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent cancellation of elections. Palestinians deserve representative leadership and accountable institutions. Europeans should now press Abbas to set new dates for PA and PLO elections. 

International support for Gaza must not be part of another zero-sum effort to unseat Hamas. The EU’s no-contact policy on the group has demonstrably failed to achieve this objective in the past 15 years, and has amounted to a complete absence of European leverage in Gaza. European diplomacy should support a genuine process of Palestinian national reunification, re-democratisation, and re-institutionalisation. As part of this, Europeans should adopt a pragmatic policy of engagement with Hamas, encouraging the movement’s participation in an inclusive political process that can support Gaza’s long-term redevelopment.

There will also need to be a shift in Israel’s political incentives, which currently favour occupation. The impartial and unconditional enforcement of international law has an important role to play in this regard. European governments should do more to ensure that their bilateral relations with Israel do not benefit the country’s settlement project, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2334. They should also support international accountability mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court. This is an indispensable means to challenge Israel’s settlement activities and dispossession of Palestinians – including families facing forced eviction in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. These mechanisms can also help prevent conflict in Gaza and the targeting of civilians there, and can hold Palestinian armed groups (including Hamas) to account.

In addition, Europeans should tackle the causes of Gaza’s enduring socio-economic crisis. While the symptoms of this crisis may be humanitarian, its causes are deeply political. Hamas bears considerable responsibility for the situation. Repeated armed confrontation has done little to win Gaza’s Palestinian residents the life of dignity they deserve. Instead, it has brought more death and destruction. But Gaza’s problems are, above all, the product of years of Israeli restrictions and closure. While these measures ostensibly target Hamas, it is the two million Palestinians living there who have suffered most. There can be no future for Gaza while Israel’s blockade remains in place.

The bottom line is that Europeans cannot be bystanders to a conflict that continues to reverberate through their southern neighbourhood. A failure to invest European political capital in diplomatic efforts would harm Gaza’s long-term chances of recovery – setting up future strife, and entrenching a one-state reality of open-ended occupation in which Palestinians are denied their basic rights and freedoms. Human Rights Watch has described this situation as ‘apartheid’ – a term that should set alarm bells ringing in European capitals. If European governments still see a two-state solution as providing the best path towards equality and security for Israelis and Palestinians, they should recognise that this vision is incompatible with the continuation of the current reality of inequality. Engagement with Palestinian and Israeli civil society should address these structural inequalities.

If a two-state solution is no longer viable, Israelis and Palestinians will have to achieve equality in an alternative political dispensation, including possible variations of a one-state model. Rights for Israelis and Palestinians cannot be mutually exclusive. European governments should not shy away from the argument (or the resulting foreign policy) that the only way to ensure a just and secure future for Israelis and Palestinians alike is to end the occupation and guarantee equal rights for all.

  • Jean-Marie Guéhenno is a senior adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, former President and CEO of International Crisis Group, and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations.
  • Daniel Levy is president of the US/Middle East Project and a former Israeli peace negotiator.
  • Marc Otte is a senior associate fellow at the Egmont Institute and vice-president of the European Institute for Peace. He was formerly EU special representative for the Middle East Peace Process.
  • Patrycja Sasnal is head of research at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
  • Nathalie Tocci is the director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali and special adviser to EU High Representative and Vice President of the Commission Josep Borrell.
  • Erkki Tuomioja is a member of the Finnish Parliament and previously the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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