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A demonstrator holds the Palestinian flag during an annual march to commemorate the Athens Polytechnic Uprising in Greece on Nov. 17, 2023 (Victoras Antonopoulos)

How Israel’s War in Gaza Sows Division Across the European Union

The EU has been criticized over its position toward Israel and the Palestinians.

Words: Victoras Antonopoulos
Pictures: Victoras Antonopoulos

Mohamed Abuasabeh first came to Greece as a student in the 1970s. Later, after he finished his studies, he stayed in Athens and worked with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a decision that cost him his ability to return to his homeland. Had he or his colleagues gone back at that time, he explained, “the only treatment they would receive from the Israelis would be imprisonment.” 

Greece and Palestine have long enjoyed close ties. In late 1981, seven years after the fall of Greece’s military junta, Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou granted the PLO full diplomatic recognition. When the PLO was driven from Beirut the following year during the Lebanese civil war, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat picked Greece as his first stop. By contrast, Greece didn’t upgrade Israel from consular-level services to embassy until 1991. 

For his part, Abuasabeh, now 73, stayed in Greece, where he married and had three children. He served for a time as the president of the Palestinian Community in Athens association and, even after retirement, he has remained active in Greece’s Palestinian community. 

Now, Abuasabeh is one of the thousands of Palestinians in Greece — and across Europe — watching from afar as Israel’s war on the besieged Gaza Strip rages on. Since Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants carried out an attack that killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel and led to the capture of around 240, the war has escalated and a lasting ceasefire has remained elusive. Israeli airstrikes and attacks have killed more than 15,000 Palestinians, around half of whom are women and children. 

“My relatives are in the West Bank, but since the war started, they are unemployed, confined in their homes and not allowed to move from village to village,” Abuasabeh explained, adding that his loved ones “are often attacked by the settlers” in the occupied West Bank. 

“Israeli forces invade civilians’ homes at any time, arrest, torture, [and] destroy,” he said. “The situation is dramatic in the West Bank. In Gaza, things are tragic too. Death prevails all day and night.”

But over the years, the Greek government, now headed by the right-wing New Democracy party, has grown closer to Israel. In late October, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, where he insisted that “Greece, from the very first moment, supported the right of Israel to defend itself in line with international law.” 

A Palestinian protester holds the Palestinian flag during a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in Athens, Greece, on May 15, 2023 (Victoras Antonopoulos)
A Palestinian protester holds the Palestinian flag during a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in Athens, Greece, on May 15, 2023 (Victoras Antonopoulos)

Tens of thousands of Palestinians and people of Palestinian descent reside across the European Union (EU), including in Greece. In 2014, a large majority of the European Parliament’s members passed a resolution expressing support for a Palestinian state, a move that the Israeli government condemned at the time. 

Yet, since Oct. 7, as a slate of government buildings across Europe were lit up in blue-and-white in a show of solidarity with Israel, several EU countries have clamped down on protesters rallying to support Palestinians, prompting criticism of free speech violations. In Germany and France, for instance, pro-Palestinian rallies have been banned in the name of ensuring public order and preventing the spread of anti-Semitism. Critics say those measures amount to silencing Palestinians

‘Dangerous and unilateral’

As the EU stands by its position to support Israel, a slew of statements from European governing bodies — including the European Council — emphasize Israel’s “right to defend itself in line with international law and international humanitarian law” and demand that “Hamas release all hostages without any precondition.” 

But the moves have prompted backlash from critics of Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez condemned the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7, but has also vowed to “work in Europe and Spain to recognize the Palestinian state.”

Kostas Arvanitis, a Greek member of the European Parliament from the left-wing Syriza party, told Inkstick that the EU’s position amid the ongoing war “is dangerous and unilateral” and goes against “the undeniable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” 

In the early days of the war, it became clear that Gaza would endure a humanitarian crisis even more severe than those of the previous four Israeli wars in the coastal enclave since late 2008, Arvanitis explained. “The EU pretends not to see the just demand for self-determination,” he added. “They pretend not to see that Gaza is an area under complete blockade. … They pretend not to see that innocent civilians and unarmed people are being murdered and, of course, this shows the hypocrisy of the West.” 

On Oct. 27, the United Nations General Assembly held a vote that saw 120 countries pass a resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire and demanding aid be allowed into Gaza. Eight EU countries voted for the resolution, while Greece joined the 15 EU members that abstained from that vote. Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Hungary — all members of the EU — voted against the resolution. 

“Greece’s abstention in the UN resolution comes in contrast with standing issues in regards to Greek diplomacy, such as that of the Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus,” Arvanitis said, adding: “They didn’t address [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas and Netanyahu on an equal footing.” 

Despite these apparent divisions within the EU’s approach to the war, European officials insist there is no contradiction in the bloc’s stance toward Israel and the Palestinians. 

Peter Stano, the lead European Commission spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, argues that “the current conflict is between Hamas and Israel, and for the EU, Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.” 

The EU pretends not to see the just demand for self-determination

– Kostas Arvanitis

According to Stano, the EU’s position is “agreed upon unanimously by all 27 member states.” He added, “All EU foreign policy decisions and actions are taken by the unanimous consensus of the 27 Member States, and the EU stance over Israel-Palestine is no exception. It is true that a member state might have diverging national opinions, but in the end, they agree on one EU position that mirrors the consensus of all 27.”

Stano said, “Our support to the Palestinian Authority, as the only representative of the Palestinian people, is both political and financial. The EU is the biggest international donor for the Palestinian people. Thus, there is no change in our relations with Palestine.” 

Arvanitis disagreed, pointing out that the EU is “a pyramid” that consists of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament. “The decisions of the European Parliament do not coincide with the decisions of the leaders of the European Union,” he said. “The European Parliament is a co-legislator. Yes, the European Council has a unanimous position, but the European Parliament … does not have a unanimous position.”

‘Conflicting national interests’

For his part, Nikos Panagiotou, an associate professor at Aristotle University’s School of Journalism, says the EU’s attitude toward Palestinians will impact the way Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world view Europe. 

“The war may be between Israel and Hamas, but considering the reactions [in] public opinion, it has a broader approach and directly or indirectly involves the entire Palestinian people,” he said. “The issue has moved beyond just the Palestinian context. It’s an important development for Arab public opinion.” 

When countries like Spain condemn the “absolute stance” of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyer in favor of Israel, Panagiotou said, “This essentially indicates the various contradicting political stances within the EU, which consequently leads to division.” 

The Palestinian flag hangs outside the Polytechnic University during an annual march to commemorate the 1973 Greek student uprising in Athens on Nov. 17, 2023 (Victoras Antonopoulos)
The Palestinian flag hangs outside the Polytechnic University during an annual march to commemorate the 1973 Greek student uprising in Athens on Nov. 17, 2023 (Victoras Antonopoulos)

Panagioutou added, “It is challenging for the EU to take a clear political stance because it has to reconcile conflicting national interests.”

When it comes to Greece, Panagiotou explained, the government’s stance has changed in part due to a four-way alliance that also includes Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. In recent years, Greece has seen heightened tensions with Turkey, which has occupied the northern part of Cyprus since 1974. Meanwhile, Turkey has at times positioned itself as a defender of Palestinian rights, a stance that has led to warmer ties between Greece and Israel. 

But those ties — and Athens’ commitment to supporting Israel unconditionally — aren’t in lockstep with Greek public opinion. In early November, a survey conducted by the polling company MRB found that a growing number of Greeks, 46.3%, were critical of their prime minister’s stance throughout the war. That poll also found that although the majority of respondents remained neutral, 10.1% of Greeks sided with Israel in the current conflict, while nearly one in three supported the Palestinians. 

Since the war first broke out, Athens and other cities around the country have been the sites of several protests and marches in solidarity with Palestinians, as well as smaller demonstrations to support Israel. 

Those rallies backing the Palestinian cause hearten Mohamed Abuasabeh. “We [Palestinians] are very pleased and proud of the attitude of the Greek people,” he said. But the way he sees it, the Greek government has caved in to “Israeli propaganda and interests. The same applies to Europe.”

Victoras Antonopoulos

Victoras Antonopoulos is a journalist from Athens, Greece. He has worked for online media and radio news. He has reported on the February 2023 earthquake in Turkey and the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

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