Western governments are urging Israel to show restraint in its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, as fears grow that the conflict could spiral out of control.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron combined their support for Israel’s right to retaliate with a warning: That response must be fair.
“Israel has the right to defend itself by eliminating terrorist groups such as Hamas through targeted action, but preserving civilian populations is the duty of democracies,” Macron said on Thursday night. “The only response to terrorism is always a strong and fair one. Strong because fair.”
On Thursday, for the first time the United States hinted at Israel’s responsibilities. Speaking alongside Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, Blinken said that while “Israel has the right to defend itself … how Israel does this matters.”
In a call with Netanyahu late Thursday evening, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “reiterated that the UK stands side by side with Israel in fighting terror and agreed that Hamas can never again be able to perpetrate atrocities against the Israeli people,” according to a Downing Street readout. But the readout also added: “Noting that Hamas has enmeshed itself in the civilian population in Gaza, the Prime Minister said it was important to take all possible measures to protect ordinary Palestinians and facilitate humanitarian aid.”
These concerns were privately echoed by other Western officials, who warned that the world is facing a precarious moment.
As Israel scales up its powerful counteroffensive in Gaza, the fear in some European governments is that a full-blown regional war could erupt.
“Whatever Israel and the Palestinians do now risks contributing to the increasing bipolarization over the conflict,” one French diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly. “One big worry is the risk that the conflict spreads to the region.”
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, already called the Hamas attacks and the subsequent kidnapping of civilians “Israel’s 9/11.”
But the 2001 attacks on the U.S. also led Washington to launch a global “War on Terror,” with American-led military involvement in Afghanistan and, two years later, Iraq, with the loss of many lives. The unified international support the U.S. enjoyed in the days and weeks immediately following 9/11 splintered over President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
“Israel clearly sees this as a casus belli [an act that provokes or justifies war],” one EU official said. “There is a real danger Israel simply uses this for a major ground offensive and wipes out the whole of Gaza.”
Shock and fury
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis even publicly warned about making the same mistake.
“The shock and fury in Israel are reminiscent of the emotions in the US after 9/11,” he said on X. “That provoked a display of American unity and power. It also led to a misconceived and self-destructive war on terror. Israel may be heading down the same dangerous path.”
Hamas’ attacks against Israel last weekend, which left more than 1,200 dead, led to an incomparable wave of sympathy and outrage across the West. The Israeli flag was projected across the European Commission’s headquarters and Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor.
But already, Israel’s retribution against Hamas is being scrutinized. Its counteroffensive has killed more than 1, 500 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry, and put the coastal strip of land under “complete siege.”
The United Nations has already sounded the alarm. Just two days after the attacks, Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “deeply distressed” at Israel’s announcement of a siege on Gaza. He also warned Israel that “military operations must be conducted in strict accordance with international humanitarian law.” This was echoed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
NGOs and Western governments now fear a humanitarian crisis, with the Red Cross warning that Gaza hospitals could turn into “morgues” without electricity.
So far, Israel seems to be doubling down.
On Thursday, Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said there would be no humanitarian exception until all hostages were freed and that nobody should moralize.
Talking about Israel’s retaliatory measures in the Gaza Strip, Prosor said Israel decided to move “from containment to eradication” of Islamic jihadists. “This is civilization against barbarity. This is good against bad.”
Haim Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the EU, acknowledged on Tuesday that there were few critical voices so far. “But I feel the more we will go ahead with our response we might see more.”
Abdalrahim Alfarra, the head of the Palestinian Mission to the EU, told POLITICO on Thursday that a change in atmosphere is already underway. “It’s starting, since [Wednesday] there are several voices in the European Union itself that have started to ask Israel and Netanyahu’s government to at the least open up a passage for food aid to stop the Israeli aggression and war against the Gaza strip,” he said.
Just like the U.S. response to 9/11, the escalation of the conflict risks destabilizing the entire region, Western diplomats fear.
“This whole conflict is a Gordian knot,” said one EU diplomat, describing the risk of escalation toward other countries in the region. The diplomat said the focus should now be on stabilizing the situation and to getting the parties back to the negotiating table.
“The Middle East conflict has the danger of escalating and bringing in other Arab countries under the pressure of their public opinion,” former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned, while pointing to the lessons learned from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, during which an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel.
Despite the historical peace efforts of the U.S. in the region, Washington is far from a neutral broker, as it has been traditionally a strong supporter of Israel. In previous crises in the region, Washington appeared to give Israel carte blanche in its response, but over time ramped up pressure to compel the Israeli government to agree to a cease fire.
The EU official cited above doubted whether Washington will follow that playbook this time. “Biden has no more room for maneuvering domestically after the Hamas attacks,” the EU official said. “He has to support Netanyahu all the way.”
Eddy Wax, Suzanne Lynch, Sarah Wheaton, Elisa Braun, Jacopo Barigazzi and Laura Hülsemann contributed reporting.
This article has been updated with a readout from U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s call with Benjamin Netanyahu, and to reflect the Palestinian death toll.