By Arthur Neslen, The EUobserver, 20 February 2024

BRUSSELS - As Europe awaits an Israeli assault on Rafah that could deliver anything from a massacre to mass ethnic cleansing, it has an important choice to make.

Will it signal that its values and interests are best served by playing Washington's good cop or will it finally use its leverage to end the bloodbath lapping ever closer to its shore?

The EU-Israel association trade agreement enabled a cool €46.8bn of trade last year. Exports rose for both parties by around 20 percent in 2022, with clear implications.

As the bloc's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: "We are [Israel's] largest trading partner and we have an association that is the broadest we have with anyone in the world so yes, we have the capacity to influence [them]."

Last week, Ireland and Spain called for an "urgent review" of the deal — and for action if Israel is found to have breached its "respect for human rights and democratic principles" obligations. These "form the very basis of the association," according to the deal's text.

The maiming and killing of tens of thousands of civilians, deliberate starvation of those that remain, and destruction of all means of civilised life do indeed suggest that Israel may not be strictly following human rights and democratic norms in Gaza.

Hungary's veto on Monday prevented a united EU call on Israel to stay out of Rafah. But it added greater piquancy to Borrell's subsequent statement that any offensive "certainly will be against the respect of humanitarian law."

There is a sense that until now, EU leaders have hoped that Joe Biden might gently talk Israel out of Gaza without Europe having to get its hands dirty. The result has been that Israel doubled down on its plausibly genocidal behaviour.

If this war has taught our callow, amoral and cowardly EU leaders anything by now, it should be that:

1) The Israeli state does not view Palestinians as equals and cannot be trusted to uphold their human rights.

2) Israel does not make concessions when its actions carry no consequences.

3) Europe will (rightly) lose respect and influence if it continues to abase itself before a racist and violent regime that views international law as optional.

4) If Gaza is to continue as a Palestinian territory after this, the bloc should be asking itself how much the restoration costs are likely to be, and who will be expected to pay them.

This last point is crucial because the EU is also the Palestinians' largest funder — and this pecuniary largesse underwrites its regional 'soft power' dreams.

Since 2014, the 'Bank of Brussels' has stumped up €3.38bn for the Palestinians, with little to show for it. But far greater sums will be required to rebuild Gaza after this war — assuming, as we should not, that it will in fact be rebuilt.

Last week, the UN's trade wing, UNCTAD, estimated the cost of reconstructing Gaza at $20bn [€18.5bn] — an extremely conservative estimate, given the scale of the devastation, which UNCTAD itself said would take the rest of the century to repair.

But to put this in terms that Europe's leaders may care more about: "You will pick up a large part of this bill. The longer the war lasts, the bigger it will be and don't expect Israel not to trash whatever you've just rebuilt if it feels like it."

We don't know how much EU-funded infrastructure in Gaza has so far been destroyed but in Israel's 2014 attack, an estimated €23m of EU projects were reduced to rubble.

In the wake of Tel Aviv's 2009 onslaught, the EU assessed the cost of the damage to its funded projects in Gaza since 2000 at €56m.

Has Israel refused to compensate the EU for this devastation? Yes. And the bill will be much higher this time around.

Four years just to remove the rubble

Israel's bombardment has been one of the heaviest ever, with the UN citing estimates that it will take more than four years just to remove the rubble of destroyed residential buildings, which now weigh more than 12,000 metric tonnes.

The human cost of the war — more than 29,000 dead and 69,000 wounded — is too high to be contemplated and could never be endured in a modern EU state.

It begs the question of whether the EU will continue to back a bloodbath that makes a mockery of its human rights, democracy and international law commitments, or can it finally find the courage to use its trade leverage in its own — and Palestine's — best interests?

Silently watching a genocide unfold while waiting to pay Israel's bill is the easy, sordid, and craven option, a self-deceiving decline into complicity in war crimes, albeit one that Viktor Orban would cheer, and Germany would wink at.

Suspending the association deal by contrast might well draw accusations of anti-semitism, terrorist sympathies and, possibly, trade retaliation.

But it would at least offer Gaza's war-ravaged people some light at the end of perhaps the darkest tunnel they have ever travelled. It would also win the respect of the majority world and signal, finally, an independent, self-respecting European arrival on the world stage.

Which is it to be?


Arthur Neslen is the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian identities: Occupied Minds - A Journey Through The Israeli Psyche and In Your Eyes A Sandstorm - Ways of Being Palestinian. From 2004 to 2009 he was based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, where he wrote about the Israel-Palestine conflict for the websites of Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the Economist, Haaretz and Jane's Information Group. He is now based in Brussels, writing about the environment for The Guardian and others.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's and do not reflect those of EUobserver or CEMAS Board.