BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders struggled Tuesday to paper over their differences as a cacophony of opinions and reactions marred the bloc’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.
But they did claim to be united behind Israel’s right to defend itself within the bounds of international law.
Since the Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, triggering the latest Gaza war, with over 4,000 dead on both sides, France has banned on pro-Palestinian demonstrations and the number of antisemitic acts has risen.
Germany has ramped up security. It’s offered military help to Israel and promised to crack down on support for Hamas at home. Low-level rallies have been held in other EU countries. Both the the 27-nation bloc and the United States consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.
EU officials, meanwhile, have sent mixed messages about sending aid to the Palestinians. The bloc is their biggest aid donor and provides around 10% of the Palestinian Authority’s budget, but it has little leverage over Israel. The EU has also been unclear about where it stands on Israel’s siege of Gaza.
“We have to guide our actions around two principles: unity and consistency,” EU Council President Charles Michel told reporters in Brussels after hosting an emergency leaders’ summit.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was criticized for visiting Israel last week without consulting the member countries, said: “Hamas terror is now bringing immense suffering to the Palestinian people. There is no contradiction in standing with Israel in solidarity and acting for the humanitarian needs for the Palestinians.”
The leaders immediately faced the challenge involved when reports came in that a hospital in Gaza City had been hit by an explosion, killing hundreds of people. Hamas said it was caused by Israel. The Israeli military denied involvement, saying it was a misfired Palestinian rocket.
Von der Leyen, who is from Germany, said she did not know enough about the incident to say whether it contravened international law. In contrast, Michel said an attack on civilian infrastructure would clearly be “not in line with international law.” They both spoke just before Israel’s denial of involvement.
In a post on X, formerly Twitter, while in Israel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote: “Brutal terror. The execution of defenseless civilians. Murdered infants, abducted children. Humiliated Holocaust survivors. It makes our blood run cold. Israel has the right to defend itself against this. A state has a duty to protect its citizens.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote on X that “Europe supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Hamas terror, exercised proportionately and in compliance with the humanitarian law of war. The need to protect innocent civilians is self-evident.”
Over the last week, many member states have felt that von der Leyen overstepped her authority by visiting Israel on Friday without a pre-agreed political message and then toed what critics called an excessively pro-Israeli line.
“Foreign and security policy remains a responsibility of the member states,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday.
The unease was compounded because, for some, von der Leyen failed to express the EU line that Israel should respect international law in its fight against Hamas.
“The position is clear: Israel has the right to defense, but this defense has to be developed in compliance with international laws and in particular humanitarian laws — because war also has its laws,” Borrell said.
Few other international crises divide the bloc like the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Michel said unity on the war was essential especially since Russia is trying to sow divisions by exploiting the conflict. Both he and von der Leyen committed to stand by Ukraine, even as much of the world focuses on the war between Israel and Hamas.
“There is one country that benefits at least indirectly from a serious escalation of violence in this region, and that is Russia. Russia will try, and is already starting to try, to exploit this situation to feed a narrative against the European Union,” Michel said. “Let’s not fall into this trap.”
In Beijing, meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán held talks with Vladimir Putin in a rare in-person meeting for the Russian president with a leader of any EU country since he ordered his troops to invade Ukraine in February 2022.
Associated Press writers Samuel Petrequin in Brussels, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.