BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders will hold an emergency summit on Tuesday as concern mounts that the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas could fuel inter-communal tensions in Europe and bring more refugees in search of sanctuary.
The leaders will also attempt to restore some order after a series of social media messages, statements and visits by EU officials sowed confusion about the 27-nation bloc’s intentions after Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, triggering a new war in Gaza.
More than 4,000 people have been killed in Israel and Gaza since Hamas launched its bloody rampage and almost 200 Israelis, including children, were taken hostage. Rallies in support of both sides have been held around Europe. Some have been banned.
“The conflict could have major security consequences for our societies,” EU Council President Charles Michel said on Monday as he announced the video summit. The meeting will also focus on getting aid to civilians and working with other countries in the region to try to stop tensions from spreading.
Over the last week, France has ordered a ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations and the number of antisemitic acts has risen. Both the EU and the United States consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.
In the Paris area, the Louvre Museum and the Palace of Versailles evacuated visitors and staff after receiving bomb threats over the weekend, and the French government started deploying 7,000 troops to increase security around the country following a fatal school stabbing by a suspected Islamic extremist.
Germany too has ramped up security. Berlin has offered military help to Israel and promised to crack down on support for Hamas at home. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has underlined Germany’s historical responsibility for Israel’s security.
Michel said that the war “has a potential to worsen tensions between communities and to feed extremism” in Europe, and that “there is a major risk of migration and movements of a large number of people to neighboring countries.”
He said that the leaders would look at ways to help civilians in Israel and Gaza caught up in the war and to work with other countries in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions to try to prevent the conflict from spreading.
In an interview with The Associated Press Friday, Michel warned that an outflow of people from Gaza could worsen divisions within the EU. “If there would be more difficulties at the regional level, we would have immediately huge difficulties on the European soil because of the refugees,” he said.
More than a million people have fled their homes in Gaza ahead of an expected Israeli ground invasion aimed at destroying Hamas.
Michel condemned “the brutal terrorist attacks” and said that “Israel has the right to defend itself in full compliance with international law and international humanitarian law.”
Also high on the leaders’ list of concerns will be the EU’s embarrassing mixed messages over the conflict. Just after Hamas launched its attack, a commissioner at the bloc’s executive branch announced that development aid mean to help the Palestinian Authority beat poverty would be immediately suspended.
Hours later, the European Commission’s position had changed. Instead, it announced an urgent review of the assistance to ensure that no money is being misused. Since it is listed by the EU as a terror group, Hamas does not receive such any funds anyway.
On Saturday, the commission said that it was tripling humanitarian aid to Gaza – money meant to be used in times of crisis or disaster like the war.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was in Israel just before the aid was announced, but her visit was not coordinated with the EU member countries. Indeed, the commission has no remit under EU treaties to conduct foreign policy. She was also criticized for failing to urge Israel to protect Palestinian civilians.
“We have put emotions and visibility in front of the core interests of the EU,” an EU official said Monday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confusion frankly, said that several member countries had complained about the way things were handled in Brussels.
But von der Leyen’s spokesman, Eric Mamer, said that “the president can travel wherever she wants.”
“She went to Israel to express solidarity with the country that had been the subject of an unprovoked terrorist attack. That is entirely in her prerogatives,” he said.
Von der Leyen and Michel travel to Washington later this week for an EU-U.S. summit with President Joe Biden.
Human rights groups have been dismayed by the communications debacle at a time of major crisis. The EU is the world’s biggest provider of aid to the Palestinians, but it holds little influence over Israel.
“This is not the time for mixed messages, instead what we need is decisive moral leadership that is centred in the cause of peace,” said Vittorio Infante, the EU humanitarian policy expert at Oxfam. “As every minute goes by, civilians are paying an ever-mounting price.”