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Gaza war exposes internal dissent on EU's Israel policy

Officials are seeking a change in Western policy amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Officials are seeking a change in Western policy amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Angelique Eijpe used to spend her days drafting strategies for the future of Dutch foreign policy from an office in The Hague. Across her 21-year career as a diplomat, she served as the Netherlands' deputy ambassador in Oman and worked on Middle East policy. These days, Eijpe is jobless. She resigned from the Dutch Foreign Ministry in January in protest of her government's response to the Israel-Hamas war.

"I'm the breadwinner in my family," Eijpe told DW over the phone. "But I said to my partner: I really cannot be part of this anymore. My personal and professional integrity is at stake here."

Before quitting, Eijpe was involved in organizing weekly sit-ins at government buildings in The Hague to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

The European Union and the United States classify Hamas as a terrorist organization and, in a joint statement in November, called the group's October 7 attacks within Israel "the most lethal assault against the Jewish people since the Holocaust."

Citing fears that an immediate cease-fire could embolden Hamas, the European Union and the United States have been reluctant to back the idea — though more than a dozen EU member states have individually supported such calls. As a bloc, the European Union has called for "humanitarian corridors and pauses" in Gaza.

The EU and US have called for increased humanitarian access to Gaza and warned of a dire situation in the strip. The United States provides financial military support to Israel, and arms exports to Israel have continued from several EU countries, including the Netherlands and Germany.

'Concerns were overruled'

Though she is now unemployed, Eijpe's schedule is packed. She has been working with other former diplomats from the Netherlands and the United States to connect disgruntled diplomats across the Atlantic. On Friday, about 800 civil servants in the EU, US and UK released an anonymous open letter urging their governments to shift course. Since the letter was published, Eijpe said, the number of signatories had increased to nearly 900.

"We have internally expressed our concerns that the policies of our governments/institutions do not serve our interests. ... Our professional concerns were overruled by political and ideological considerations," the letter reads.

One EU official who drafted the letter and who spoke to DW over the phone in Brussels on condition of anonymity said there was a "silencing culture" inside government offices, noting that people who speak out are "considered as very emotional activists." The official, whose 14-year career in civil service includes work on employment and social integration policies, has been working behind the scenes, making WhatsApp groups and drafting statements on secret document links to bring together others who share her convictions.

In the letter, the civil servants write that Western governments have supported Israel "without real conditions or accountability."

"There is a plausible risk that our governments' policies are contributing to grave violations of international humanitarian law," they write.

Eijpe said the letter was signed by officials from Germany, Belgium, Finland, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden and EU institutions. DW could not verify the identities or number of the anonymous signatories of the letter.

Given the hundreds of thousands of civil servants employed by governments in the EU and US, the 900 or so names represent a tiny minority — but the trans-Atlantic statement is also the broadest document of official protest yet.

"This is, I think, the tip of the iceberg," Eijpe said, adding that US officials are particularly nervous about signing on because of their more limited job protections.

Last month, the EU Observer news outlet reported on a separate statement signed by 1,500 EU officials calling for an arms embargo on Israel, while broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported in October on another letter signed by 800 bloc staffers claiming that "the EU risks losing all credibility" with its response to the conflict.

Israel rejects accusations

Israeli officials strongly reject the letter's statement that "Israel has shown no boundaries in its military operations in Gaza." The Israel Defense Forces say they do "everything possible to limit civilian casualties in Gaza."

"Hamas exploits these efforts by encouraging Palestinian civilians to ignore the IDF's warnings," the military's website says, citing examples of text messages, phone calls and leaflets sent by Israel to civilians in the besieged territory.

Asked about the anonymous statement, an Israeli official told DW in Brussels, "It's not easy in a time like this for our country to see that some individuals are choosing to turn against."

"They are trying to exploit the situation," the official said. "They are trying to maybe ruin our good working relations with our countries and undermine all the things we have achieved so far.

"It's unfortunate," the official added, "but we don't think it reflects those countries as a whole."

Debate 'only natural'

Foreign ministries seem aware of the discontent playing out in parts of their corridors of power.

"It is only natural that the debate in society about the conflict between Israel and Hamas also exists within our ministry. We feel that there should be scope for this debate and we encourage staff to enter into dialogues internally," a Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesperson told DW in written comments.

"At the same time, the ministry's policy is determined by our ministers (after taking advice from civil servants) and the ministers are accountable to parliament," the spokesperson wrote. "This is a given for the work of every civil servant."

Germany's Foreign Ministry told DW that it "takes note" of the trans-Atlantic letter. The European Commission said it was "looking into" the statement. A British Foreign Office spokesperson told DW: "The UK wants to see an end to the fighting in Gaza as soon as possible" and would continue to call for international humanitarian law to be respected and civilians to be protected.

No unity in the European Union?

Mihail Chihaia, a Middle East analyst with the European Policy Centre, told DW that actions such as the letter could "add pressure on European and US decision-makers to push for a cease-fire but also to advance efforts for a long-term solution." But differences of opinion are not only playing out behind closed doors, Chihaia said ongoing divisions in the European Union would make joint action unlikely.

"The EU bloc will, unfortunately, continue to struggle to speak with one voice on the conflict in Gaza," he said.

In recent weeks, the European Union has made more of an effort to look less like a bystander and more like a broker as the conflict in Gaza drags on by bringing together Arab, Israeli and Palestinian ministers to discuss ways to reach a two-state solution. Chihaia said this initial plan "needs strong backing from EU member states, gaining regional buy-in, and practical steps taken towards implementation."

"Otherwise," he said, "it risks becoming another paper tiger."

Edited by: M. Gagnon