Von der Leyen accused of ‘unacceptable bias’ toward Israel – POLITICO

BRUSSELS — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is facing criticism for not explicitly calling on Israel to respect international law in its war on Gaza during a trip to the country Friday.

Von der Leyen, a German center-right politician, visited the Kfar Aza kibbutz where Hamas militants murdered scores of civilians in an attack last week that killed more than 1,300 Israelis. She also expressed unreserved solidarity with Israel on behalf of the European Union.

But she is facing political backlash from lawmakers and diplomats for not speaking up about the humanitarian consequences of Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Hamas in Gaza, which have killed more than 1,900 Palestinians including many civilians.

“She simply said Israel has the right to defend itself, full stop,” said a diplomat who spoke anonymously to speak freely. “That is not the line member states agreed.” 

On Tuesday, EU’s foreign ministers condemned attacks by Hamas but also “called for the protection of civilians and restraint, the release of hostages, for allowing access to food, water and medicines to Gaza in line with international humanitarian law.”

Standing next to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday, von der Leyen said Israel has the right to defend itself. After acknowledging the suffering of innocent Palestinians, she said: “I know that how Israel responds will show that it is a democracy.” 

Von der Leyen undertook the one-day trip with the president of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola — also from the center-right political family — who was invited to Israel by the country’s parliament. In Tel Aviv, the pair had to shelter from rockets fired by Hamas.

Iratxe García, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the Parliament, said in a statement to POLITICO: “Both Ursula von der Leyen and Roberta Metsola were right to show Europe’s solidarity and absolute condemnation for Hamas’ terrorist attacks.”

“However, as chief representatives of the EU and its institutions, they had the duty to represent the position of the Union as a whole including its Member States,” she added. “With their visit to Israel they failed, upholding an unacceptable bias that can only cause harm.”

Metsola wrote on X while in Israel: “We can – we must – stop Hamas. And do what we can to mitigate humanitarian consequences.” Metsola’s spokesperson Jüri Laas said the president underlined that how we respond to the terror attacks matters,” during meetings with officials.

The Israeli government has ordered some 1 million people to leave northern Gaza as it prepares a potential ground offensive, drawing criticism from international organizations.

“Forcible population transfers constitute a crime against humanity, and collective punishment is prohibited under international humanitarian law,” said Paula Gaviria Betancur, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons in a statement Friday.

Nathalie Loiseau, a senior French MEP who chairs the security and defence committee, wrote on X: “Madame von der Leyen … You are forgetting an important message: Israel must respect international humanitarian law.” 

Loiseau, who sits in the centrist Renew Europe group, wrote that she shares von der Leyen’s support for the people of Israel but added: “I don’t understand what the President of the European Commission has to do with the foreign policy of the EU, which she is not in charge of.”

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has been more critical of Israel, calling the country’s siege of Gaza illegal and dismissing its evacuation order as unrealistic. 

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, has stressed that international law “must be respected” by Israel which has blocked food, water and fuel supplies to Gaza.

The criticism of von der Leyen’s stance comes after a week of muddled messaging by the Commission. On Monday, Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi announced that the EU would immediately suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority. Hours later, after a furious backlash by EU countries and other commissioners, the Commission reversed the decision. 

“The problem is the confusion of people in the Commission on the questions of foreign policy,” said Loiseau.

Jonathan Rosenzweig, the deputy chief of mission at Israel’s mission to the EU, criticized concerns about a common EU position, describing them as “absurd” while “more than 1,300 innocent civilians were butchered, raped, beheaded, burnt and kidnapped.” He added: “You need to recalibrate your moral compass.”

Adel Atieh, the deputy ambassador at the Palestinian Authority’s Mission to the EU, wrote on X that von der Leyen and Metsola “share double human standards.”

On Saturday, as the criticism mounted, the Commission announced it will triple its humanitarian aid to Gaza, bringing the total to €75 million. 

“The Commission supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Hamas terrorists, in full respect of international humanitarian law,” the Commission said in a statement.

Von der Leyen’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

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