Encapsulating the complexities facing the West is the one question which has been asked repeatedly of Western leaders over the past two weeks: Why has the plight of Palestinian civilians not been given the same attention as that of the Ukrainians?
At the Cairo Peace Summit over the weekend, also attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa, country after country attacked the EU delegates and EU member state representatives present. They were roundly accused of double standards and hypocrisy for condemning Russia’s breaches of humanitarian law, but not Israel’s.
This sentiment is especially prevalent in the so-called Global South.
Just four weeks before Hamas viciously and inhumanly attacked Israel on 7 October, leaders from the US and EU asked developing nations at the G20 meeting in New Delhi to condemn Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian civilians as war crimes, in order to uphold respect for the UN Charter on international law.
Now, many of those same Western diplomats are having the same argument read back at them, in demands for condemnation of Israel’s assault on Gaza and its decision to continue to restrict water, electricity, fuel, and even aid, from civilians.
To many in the Global South, this simply confirms the long perceived notion that a world order of international law does not mean the same thing to all.
To paraphrase George Orwell, all countries and humans are equal in the eyes of the law, but some countries and citizens are simply more equal than others.
As a senior G7 diplomat said, quoted in the Financial Times, “What we said about Ukraine has to apply to Gaza, otherwise we lose all credibility. We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South. All the work we have done over Ukraine has been lost. Forget about rules, forget about world order. The Brazilians, the South Africans, the Indonesians and many more will never listen to us again.”
Increasingly, there are signs that the EU is taking heed and that the tone towards Israel is changing.
In response to a question at a press briefing on Israel’s decision to cut off services to Gaza, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, said that Israel’s “total siege of Gaza, where you cut the basic infrastructure, where you cut water, where you cut electricity, where you do not allow food to be delivered, this is not in line with international law”.
Subsequently, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, called on Monday for a pause in hostilities to allow aid deliveries into the Gaza Strip.
Such sentiments are spreading and becoming increasingly strident.
Parts of the Spanish government have called for breaking diplomatic relations with Israel and sanctions against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over what Ione Belarra, the deputy minister for social rights in Pedro Sánchez’s government, has called a “genocide” of Palestinians.
The long-term impact on how the rest of the world views Israel will be profound.
The threatened land invasion of Gaza will be exponentially worse in terms of humanitarian impact and has the potential to engulf the broader region and become a quagmire for the Israel Defense Forces, dragging on for years. The Israeli end game of such a possible invasion of Gaza and eradication of Hamas is conspicuously absent.
But to continue the current siege and indiscriminate bombing will lead to mass starvation and outbreaks of disease, which broadly equates to extinguishing life in Gaza as we know it.
UN agency Unicef said this week that an average of 400 children are killed or wounded every day in Gaza.
Many more months of photos of cruelly injured infants and news reports of innocent lives lost will obscure the memories of the unspeakably cruel attacks on Israeli citizens of 7 October. What awaits is a PR nightmare for Israel.
As Thomas Friedman has argued in The New York Times, “Israel would be much better off framing any Gaza operation as ‘Operation Save Our Hostages’ — rather than ‘Operation End Hamas Once and for All’ — and carrying it out, if possible, with repeated surgical strikes and special forces that can still get the Hamas leadership but also draw the brightest possible line between Gazan civilians and the Hamas dictatorship.”
Israel argues that those criticising its war in Gaza are delusional, hypocritical or anti-Semitic. Some critics of Israel are indeed enemies of the very idea of a Jewish state. But there are many who come from a position of concern and empathy for Israel.
With allies in the Global South and even in the EU teetering, Israel is more vulnerable than ever.
The country cannot afford to simply ignore international opinion and depend solely on the US. As it enters an existentially dangerous phase in its history, the Jewish state will need all the international support it can get — militarily, economically and diplomatically.
Suddenly, the seemingly clear-cut definitions between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – which the West tried to assert on the rest of the world in the war on Ukraine – are not quite so simple. Everything in geopolitics is looking increasingly grey, complicated and fragmented.
Perhaps the only certainty is that the consequences of the past two weeks of turmoil and brutality will live with us all for years, if not decades, to come. DM