In a move that could prove costly, the Israeli government has erupted in anger after the prime ministers of Spain and Belgium criticized Israel for its attacks on Gaza in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel — even going so far as to accuse the two countries of “support [of] terrorism.”
The diplomatic crisis started with remarks by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Belgian PM Alexander De Croo on their two-day swing through Israel, Palestinian territory and Egypt.
The pair held a joint press conference at the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. First acknowledging that “Israel has the right to defend its citizens,” De Croo said “too many civilians have been killed” in Gaza. “We cannot accept a society [being] destroyed the way the society of Gaza is being destroyed…The military operation that Israel is conducting to stop the terrorist attacks must respect international humanitarian law.”
Very strong statement by the Belgian and Spanish Prime Ministers, saving Europe from a complete moral and strategic collapse (this statement was given AFTER they met with Netanyahu):
– International law MUST be respected
– Killing of civilians MUST stop
– The destruction of Gaza… pic.twitter.com/NdDas6zJFr
— Trita Parsi (@tparsi) November 24, 2023
De Croo also demanded a stop to violence being perpetrated against Palestinians by Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Even before the Oct 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, 2023 was already considered the worst year for settler violence in more than a decade. Since, settlers have ramped up their killing of Palestinians, leaving threatening leaflets ordering them to leave their homes, blocking roads with boulders, cutting electricity lines to Palestinians’ homes, shutting down water wells and destroying olive trees.
Sánchez was more pointed: “The indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, including thousands of boys and girls, [is] completely unacceptable.” In addition to his remarks at Rafah, Sánchez also voiced his concern about the Israeli Defense Forces conduct while speaking next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to estimates of Gaza officials, more than 14,000 have died in Israel’s bombardment and ensuing invasion — including 10,000 women and children. Fleeing the destruction, nearly 1.7 million have been displaced from their homes, according to the UN, and upwards of half of all buildings have been damaged.
About the death and destruction in Gaza:
“The worst ever. And I don’t say that lightly. 68% of the people killed in Gaza are women and children. No, I don’t think I have seen anything like this before. It’s complete and utter carnage.”
—UN Relief Chief pic.twitter.com/BwYFB0nCTk
— sarah (@sahouraxo) November 24, 2023
Perhaps even more alarming to Israel, Sanchez also called for the entire international community to recognize a Palestinian state. He said he hoped the EU would do so in concert, “but if this is not the case … Spain will take their own decisions.” 138 of the world’s states have already recognized Palestine — broadly speaking, pretty much the entire world apart from North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen accused the two prime ministers of making “false statements…in support of terrorism,” saying that Israel is “fighting a murderous terrorist organization worse than ISIS” and insisted its military is complying with international law. “Their ambassadors will be invited to a harsh rebuke conversation,” Cohen said via Twitter.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added his own condemnation of the Spanish and Belgian prime ministers:
Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly condemns the comments by the prime ministers of Belgium and Spain, who did not place total responsibility on Hamas for the crimes against humanity it perpetrated: massacring Israeli citizens and using Palestinians as human shields.
— Prime Minister of Israel (@IsraeliPM) November 24, 2023
Spain was startled by Israel’s strident response, an official told the Financial Times. Madrid promptly fired back at Tel Aviv, with Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Albares denouncing the Israel’s “false, misplaced and unacceptable accusations.”
DeCroo indicated he would himself summon the Israeli ambassador, but put it in much more polite terms than Cohen did, telling Belgian newspaper Le Soir, “We’re going to invite the Israeli ambassador to Brussels for a coffee and we’ll repeat our position.”
Israel’s lashing out in the face of reasonable criticism carries extra diplomatic risk, as Spain and Belgium currently hold positions of heightened international influence: Spain holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, and Belgium takes over on Jan. 1.
Once rare, criticism of Israel by Western states seems to be a growing trend. On Friday, UK foreign minister David Cameron said he cautioned Israeli officials that “they must abide by international humanitarian law, that the number of casualties are too high.”
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