Israel-Hamas War Is Stoking Fear and Divisions in Europe

The conflict could further undermine cohesion in a region already tested by the war in Ukraine

(Bloomberg) — Monuments in cities across Europe were lit up in blue and white on the night of Oct. 7 in solidarity with Israel after 1,400 of its citizens, mostly unarmed civilians, were killed in the worst attack the country has suffered in decades. 

Leaders from Emmanuel Macron in France to Giorgia Meloni in Italy voiced messages of unwavering support.

But the display of unity masked deep-seated social tensions that surfaced over the following days. Across the region, Jews now fear a rise in anti-Semitism. Muslims worry they are being equated with Hamas — the Islamist militant group that carried out the attack on Israel’s south. 

In light of the destruction of a hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday night which left 500 people dead, with the number of casualties expected to climb, these dynamics will likely get worse. Israel has claimed that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed militant group operating in Gaza. At least 3,000 Palestinians had been killed in violence prior to the explosion. 

With more protests expected across European capitals, US President Joe Biden landed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning in an effort to salvage diplomatic efforts in the region.  

Meanwhile, in Europe, a failure of the 27 leaders of the European Union to speak with one voice is not helping. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for example, has come under criticism for voicing strong support for Israel during a trip to the country, while failing, in the view of another EU official, to call strongly enough on Israeli authorities to respect international law in their retaliatory operations in the Gaza Strip, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and Europe.

The risk of alienating entire communities could further undermine social cohesion within the EU, which has already been tested by the war in Ukraine, the rise of populism and a historic cost-of-living crisis.

Read more: Why Gaza Is Epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Social strains are particularly acute in Germany given its recent history of migration and role in the Holocaust. It is also home to one of the largest Palestinian populations outside the Middle East.

The same night that the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was lit up with the colors of the Israeli flag, about 40 pro-Hamas demonstrators celebrated the attack.

In response to the rally in a predominantly Arab neighborhood — and to reports that stars of David had been graffitied on homes thought to be occupied by Jews — Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed a “zero tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism and the glorification of the Hamas raid, promising to prosecute offenders. Late Tuesday night, firebombs were thrown in the direction of a synagogue in central Berlin. “Unknown persons threw two Molotov cocktails from the street,” the Kahal Adass Jisroel community wrote on X. Nobody was injured, and no buildings were damaged.”It’s very clear that we will never accept it when attacks are made against Jewish installations. We can also not accept events where violence occurs and anti-Semitic slogans are used,” Scholz said in comments to reporters while on a trip to Egypt. “And I’m sure that the German people are united with me in wanting to do everything in our power to protect our Jewish fellow citizens.”

The center-left chancellor also restricted pro-Palestinian demonstrations, prompting accusations of overreach from members of Germany’s Muslim community. That added to unease between pro-Palestinian Arabs, Muslims and leftists and members of Germany’s broader political mainstream which staunchly supports Israel.  

Residents of Berlin have been mindful of a deluge of misinformation and an outpouring of activism, and there have been no instances of mass violence in the past 10 days.

But recent gains by the far-right Alternative for Germany in regional elections have raised concern over whether the far-right will weaponize fears of anti-Semitism.

Read more: The Far Right Is Advancing in a Vulnerable Europe Again

Similar scenarios are playing out across the region.

Adding to the sense of unease are two attacks by suspected Islamists elsewhere in the region. Even though they don’t appear to be related to the Israel-Hamas war, governments have rushed to try and calm nervous citizens.

“This is a time for more security, caution and awareness,” Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said at a press conference in Stockholm, after the attack in Brussels on Monday that killed two Swedes. “We cannot be too naive.” 

Across France, soldiers were dispatched to back up police after a teacher was killed last week in what President Emanuel Macron called an act of Islamist terrorism. 

Read more: France Is on Edge After Israel-Hamas War Reopens Old Scars 

Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt said on Tuesday that he’s worried the recent assassination of a teacher might undermine support for an upcoming immigration bill that aims to help certain undocumented workers stay in France.

In Italy, prosecutors in Milan held a press conference this week to reassure a nervous public that the arrest of two Egyptian nationals on terror charges was not linked to the conflict in Israel, but rather the result of a police investigation dating back to 2021. 

And in Austria, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg warned about a potential increase in numbers of migrants in the event of a ground war in Gaza. A similar concern was voiced in Greece. 

Spain stands out for taking a very different approach.  

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s socialist government condemned Hamas’s attacks while calling for the recognition of Palestine statehood and for international humanitarian rights to be respected in Gaza. 

Spain has historically been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and more than 10,000 people marched in Madrid on Sunday in one of the country’s biggest pro-Palestine demonstrations in years.

Meanwhile, with EU leaders still working to hammer out a unified message in response to the escalating conflict, German Chancellor Scholz became the first European leader to visit Israel since the Hamas attacks.

The chancellor arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, and will head to Egypt afterwards for a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Scholz also met with the relatives of German citizens being held hostage by Hamas.

–With assistance from Arne Delfs, Ania Nussbaum, Chiara Albanese, Alan Katz, Charles Daly, Kevin Whitelaw and Alberto Brambilla.

(Updates with context about Biden visit and firebombing in Berlin, and Scholz reaction)

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