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Europe: Inflamed and haunted by Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Europe's political leaders are mostly speaking with one voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and they're backing Israel. But on the streets, in classrooms, online and in newspaper columns, Europeans are deeply divided on an issue that stirs passions.

(CN) — In Europe, nothing stirs passions, hatreds and politics like the Israeli-Palestinian clash. When the conflict ignites, Europe catches on fire too.

It was, after all, Europe's history of imperialism, racism, colonialism, war and genocide that created this intractable conflict in the first place, and the Europe of today remains deeply shaped and affected by how the conflict evolves.

“It is seen as one of the defining struggles of our time, so it gets a lot of symbolic attention loaded onto it,” said Ben Gidley, an expert on antisemitism and Israel at Birkbeck, University of London. “It brings more people to the street and the internet than any other conflict.”

“Israel is, in many ways, a fetish of our times,” said Marcela Menachem Zoufalá, a cultural anthropologist at Charles University in Prague and an expert on Israel and Jews in Europe.I am not the first to say this.”

Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by the militant Palestinian group Hamas, Europe has been seized by the war.

News coverage of Ukraine has been eclipsed by ghastly images from Israel and Gaza. Debates over good and evil, war crimes and justice, history, realpolitik and geopolitics have shifted from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

Academics hurl insults at each other. Arts venues have canceled pro-Palestinian speakers, sparking fresh controversy. Incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia are soaring. Border checks are even back in places, cracking the European Union's dream of doing away with frontiers. Authorities say the threat posed by migrants, many of them Muslims, and Islamist terrorists is too great to allow for open borders.

The brutality taking place in Israel is exposing deep rifts and wounds in Europe related to Muslim immigration, the Holocaust, human rights, colonialism, the rise of far-right parties and the EU's self-appointed mission as a moral authority and standard bearer of liberal democratic values.

And the outbreak of war poses serious threats for Europe.

There's the risk the conflict may escalate into a regional war. The bloodshed and destruction could lead to new waves of refugees. New terrorist attacks are a possibility as religious and racial tensions grow in Europe, home to large Muslim and Jewish populations.

Meanwhile, European politicians argue, waffle and flip flop as the war intensifies and Israel's bombardment and siege of Gaza turns ever more deadly. It's a political paralysis that feeds into the image of the EU as a weak international player with little clout.

A bloc divided

But as the war intensifies and the death toll rises in Gaza, Europeans are becoming even more divided.

Each weekend brings out hundreds of thousands of people for demonstrations — with the biggest ones supporting Palestinian causes. For many Europeans, being pro-Palestinian means being on the right side of history.

“It's become kind of a symbolic struggle for an image of anti-colonial liberation in a way that South Africa was for the previous generation, or the civil rights movement,” Gidley said in a telephone interview.

The Palestinian flag “has become an iconic badge of moral integrity,” he added.

As in the United States, these pro-Palestinian demonstrations, made up largely of Muslims and left-leaning younger people, have been labeled as antisemitic and pro-Hamas. Some countries, including Germany, Austria and France, have tried to ban them. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the EU.

The condemnation of pro-Palestinian sentiments also reflects a geopolitical shift in Europe away from the Palestinian side.

In part, this can be explained by Europe's closer economic and military cooperation in recent years with Israel but also on a rise in anti-Muslim views across the EU, a reaction to large-scale Muslim immigration and a series of Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, Madrid and elsewhere over the past two decades.

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“There is now growing identification of the EU countries with Israel based on this immigration,” Menachem Zoufalá said, speaking by telephone.

In the past, much of Western Europe often took the side of Palestinians, a policy rooted in Europe's reliance on Arab oil.

After Israel's victory and land gains in the Six-Day War in 1967, European countries, then constituted as the European Community, developed what scholars say was Europe's first common approach on foreign policy.

By the 1970s, this policy saw European leaders argue they were ideally placed to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The crux of their plan was to pioneer a two-state solution — a Palestinian state coexisting with a Jewish state.

A shift in position

But in recent years, Europe's officialdom has shifted toward a more pro-Israeli approach in line with American policy, though it's a position opposed by many younger Europeans who see Palestinians as the victims.

This pro-Palestinian position is embodied by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist and poster child of Europe's rebellious youth.

Since the war erupted, Thunberg has championed the Palestinian cause. At protests, she has worn a black-and-white Palestinian scarf, the keffiyeh, and chanted, “No climate justice on occupied land.” Her Fridays for Future protests now feature signs reading: “Free Palestine,” “Stop the genocide” and “Justice for Palestine.”

Her position has been attacked by fellow climate activists and spawned criticism from progressives. “Persona non Greta?” asked Die Tageszeitung, a left-leaning German newspaper critical of her support for Palestinian causes. A columnist at the newspaper accused her climate movement of “pure antisemitism.”

Mostly, European leaders have expressed steadfast support for Israel, lit up government buildings with the colors of the Israeli flag, and uniformly condemned Hamas, besides a few exceptions, most notably France's far-left political leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

“The immediate reaction of what we call the West was very quick, and let's say very unified,” Menachem Zoufalá said. “I would even talk about this as quite unprecedented support for Israel.”

She attributed that partly to the high “level of the atrocities” committed by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack, which saw about 1,200 people killed, most of them civilians.

“This was so shocking to see for the Western leadership that the response came very quickly,” she said.

However, it's become harder for many Europeans, in particular those on the left, to support Israel as it carries out its onslaught on Gaza, and to hear top Israeli officials make alarming statements about wanting to drive the Palestinian population of 2.3 million people out of Gaza.

In recent days, French President Emmanuel Macron has exemplified Europe's tormented spot.

Historically, France has kept good relations with Arab nations and taken a balanced approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. France has the largest populations of both Jews and Muslims in the EU.

But in the space of a few days, Macron went from calling for a cease-fire and condemning Israel's bombardment of Gaza, saying there was “no justification” for the killing of “babies and women,” to quickly backtracking after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of making “a serious factual and moral error.”

Within hours of Netanyahu's scolding, Macron was on the telephone with Israeli President Isaac Herzog to say he “unequivocally supports Israel and its right to self-defense.”

But Macron's pro-Israeli position has infuriated many of his own Middle East ambassadors. In a letter to the Élysée, several French ambassadors in the Middle East and North Africa warned that his pro-Israeli stance broke with France's long-standing approach and risked damaging the country's credibility in the Arab world for years to come.

An increase of political friction

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This conflict is especially vexing for the left in Europe.

Earlier this month, the Labour Party in Great Britain was torn apart over an amendment in Parliament calling for a cease-fire. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader on pace to become the next British prime minister, wanted his party members to abstain, but 56 defied his wishes and supported a cease-fire. Several frontbenchers angry at Starmer's refusal to back a cease-fire even resigned their leadership posts.

Differences over the war have caused friction in left-wing alliances, parties and circles in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy too. Generally, more radical left-wing politicians want Israel to stop the war while left-leaning centrists are in line with EU and U.S. calls for “humanitarian pauses.”

Gidley said supporting Palestinians has become “part of a kind of package” for people who see themselves as concerned about injustices.

“It's become a sort of truism that the Palestinian cause is one of those great, just causes; just in the way that the anti-apartheid movement was,” he said. “It doesn't require that much thought. It arouses passions and it is seen as a black-and-white issue for many people.”

On the flip side, many on Europe's right and far right back Israel because they cherish it as standing up to Islamic forces.

“Israel is seen as on the front-line against Muslim civilizations or what's perceived as Muslim barbarism,” Gidley said.

Gidley said the events in the Middle East have become linked to “the culture war against Islam and against migrants that has been a real motor of the right.”

A rise in fear and hate

Sina Arnold, a scholar at the Technical University of Berlin's Center for Research on Antisemitism, said the war is fueling both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“Jews in Europe are actually afraid again, more than they've ever been probably in the last few decades,” she said.

In Berlin, she said it was shocking to see Islamist extremists in the streets cheering the Hamas attack.

“There was sheer celebration of mass murder,” she said, speaking by telephone.

Following Israel's bombardment of Gaza, she was stunned to witness what she called pro-Hamas riots break out in her left-wing hipster district of Berlin, where a sizable Muslim community lives.

“In the the first two weeks, those were actual riots,” she said. “Overturned garbage cans, barriers in the streets, firecrackers and rocks thrown at police; people walking by and filming getting their mobile phones torn out” of their hands.

She said Jewish friends told her they no longer felt safe to speak Hebrew, walk outside or send their children to school.

“These are all left, liberal people who have always cared about Palestinian rights, who always called out anti-Muslim racism in Germany,” she said. “It's a very tense atmosphere and it's scary.”

She added that the mood has turned dangerously foul against Muslims too.

“We see extremely racist debates that kind of lump all Palestinians together,” she said.

It was worrying to hear politicians, and even Germany's center-left Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz, talk about expelling foreigners in large numbers, she said.

“Politicians of all stripes shamelessly talk about the need to quickly deport migrants on a large scale,” she said. “We have this really toxic mix of rising antisemitism and a rise in racism and racist politics, and those reinforce each other and they can also be played out against each other.”

A fundamental role

Europe has played a pivotal — and guilt-ridden — role from the start in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Zionism, the late 19th-century movement to create a Jewish homeland, grew from Europe's pogroms.

Then in 1917, Britain declared it would support a nation for Jews in Palestine, a territory it conquered from the collapsing Ottoman Empire in World War I. Britain's plan for Palestine and the arrival of large numbers of Jews in the ensuing years sparked outrage and revolt among Arabs. The seeds of conflict were sewn.

The Shoah, Europe's genocide against Jews, led to Israel's creation in 1948. After the war, Jewish Holocaust survivors flooded into the new Jewish state, doubling its population in the space of a few years. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensified after Arabs lost their lands, towns and villages following the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs ended up as refugees in Gaza.

Starting in 1952, billions of dollars in war reparations from West Germany helped turn the impoverished and agricultural state of Israel into a modern industrial powerhouse. To atone for the Nazi genocide, Germany's political establishment has made standing by Israel a core tenet.

Starting in the 1970s and in keeping with its trust in a two-state solution, Europe began funding Palestinian authorities in a bid to build a future Palestinian state. European funds have continued to flow to Palestinian authorities to the present.

Throughout this history, the conflict has tested and divided Europe.

“It's a crazy challenge for the European Union to remain on the side of humanitarianism and human rights both in Gaza but also protect Jewish lives,” Arnold said. “It is so morally contested and so heavily loaded. This has always been a dividing issue.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics, Religion

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