HomeWorldHow Spain and Ireland became the EU’s sharpest critics of Israel

How Spain and Ireland became the EU’s sharpest critics of Israel

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that the Israeli military’s killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza on Monday night was “a tragic incident” did precious little to allay the fears of Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. Nor did his assertion that “this happens in wartime”.

Sánchez, who has been one of the most outspoken and persistent European critics of the way in which Israel has prosecuted its war in Gaza after the terrorist atrocities of 7 October, described the Israeli prime minister’s “supposed explanations” as “totally unacceptable and insufficient”. He added that Spain was waiting for a full and detailed account of the killings before deciding “what action we’ll take with regard to the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu”.

Sánchez’s latest remarks – along with his announcement on Monday that Spain intends to recognise a Palestinian state by July – are a further example of how some of the more habitually taciturn members of the EU have found themselves compelled to speak up amid concerns that the bloc is failing to live up to its moral, political and humanitarian duties.

While condemning Hamas’s “shocking acts of terrorism” and acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself, Sánchez has infuriated Netanyahu’s government by calling the number of dead Palestinians “truly unbearable”, and emphasising that Israel’s response cannot include “the deaths of innocent civilians, including thousands of children”. Spain’s socialist prime minister has also said he has “genuine doubts” about whether Israel is complying with international humanitarian law in its offensive in Gaza.

In an interview with al-Jazeera on Thursday afternoon, Sánchez said Israel’s actions in Gaza could even lead the EU to debate “whether we continue with this strategic relation or not”.

The language from Ireland, which is widely perceived as the most pro-Palestinian voice in the EU, has been similarly unvarnished. The outgoing taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has described the assault as “approaching revenge”, while the foreign minister, Micheál Martin, has said it was “disproportionate”.

Leo Varadkar: Israel’s assault ‘approaching revenge’ Photograph: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Some European diplomats feel history will not look kindly on the EU’s inclination to look the other way on Israel and Gaza when the bloc was all too prepared to call out Russia’s actions in Ukraine. One senior diplomatic source told the Guardian that Spain and Ireland’s strong positions on Palestine were beginning to pay off, adding that each time Madrid and Dublin spoke out, the loneliness of their stance faded and others were emboldened to join them.

Both Sánchez and Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, are adamant that the two-state solution remains the only answer to the crisis in the Middle East – hence the Spanish government’s urgency in recognising a Palestinian state.

“If we look at the medium and long term, if we don’t do something differently to how we have been acting in the last decade, we will see this spiral of violence once again. And in order to do that [something different] … we need a real and valuable Palestinian state,” Albares told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “That’s why we are going to recognise the state of Palestine.”

Albares also pointed out that the recognition of a Palestinian state had long been a key foreign policy commitment for Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Worker’s party (PSOE). The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, himself a former Spanish foreign minister, has also made his feelings plain when it comes to Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

“Which are the other solutions they have in mind?” Borrell said in January. “To make all the Palestinians leave? To kill them? Twenty-five thousand already in Gaza, 70% women and children. Certainly, the way of trying to destroy Hamas is not the way they are doing, because they are seeding the hate for generations.”

Dublin has been seeking to make common cause with like-minded members and has calibrated its statements to nudge, but not subvert, the EU foreign policy mainstream. As well as teaming up with Spain, Slovenia and Malta last month to express a readiness to recognise Palestinian statehood, it has partnered with Spain to prod the EU into reviewing an Israel trade deal over human rights obligations.

Last week Ireland announced it would intervene in South Africa’s landmark international court of justice case against Israel by attempting to widen the definition of genocide to include blocking aid.

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“Clearly an entire population is being impacted here not just through the bombing but through starvation,” Martin, told the Guardian. “We’ve experienced famine, we know what it’s like in our psyche,” he said, citing the 1840s disaster known as the Great Hunger.

Martin linked Dublin’s response to the devastation in Gaza with an Irish foreign policy tradition of seeking to curb certain weapons, such as cluster munitions, and promoting humanitarian corridors in Syria, Ethiopia and other conflicts.

Martin said he expected Ireland’s foreign policy to remain unchanged under Simon Harris, who is due to succeed Varadkar as taoiseach next week. “We’ve worked with Simon Harris for the last four years in government, so we don’t anticipate any major issues around the content of foreign policy,” he said.

Irish diplomats and analysts say Ireland’s colonial history has predisposed it to back the underdog. It was the first EU state to endorse Palestinian statehood in 1980. Even so, Ireland strives to remain within the EU consensus, said Niall Holohan, who served as Ireland’s representative to the Palestinian Authority from 2002 to 2006.

Domestically, the Irish government has faced pressure to be more forthright about Israel’s actions. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Israel has accused Dublin of giving succour to Hamas, whose 7 October attack on southern Israel triggered the war, but domestically the Irish government has faced accusations of being too soft on Israel. Opposition parties have pushed for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and proposed a law that would ban the Irish state from investing in companies that operate in illegal Israeli settlements, moves the government has resisted.

Sánchez’s erstwhile allies in the far-left Podemos party have also been forthright in their condemnation, accusing Israel of planning a “genocide” against the Palestinian people and calling for Netanyahu to be brought before the international criminal court to face war crimes charges.

As European and international exasperation increases, some diplomats blame the continued division in the bloc on the early unconditional support for Israel given by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, arguing it would not be at odds if she had clearly mentioned Israel’s obligation to observe human rights in her initial support of the country’s right to defend itself.

Six months on, waiting for a change in the status quo is simply no longer an option for many. “If we wait for the 27 member states [to recognise Palestine] we will be waiting for ever,” said one senior diplomat.

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