Gaza protests take hold inside EU institutions

Staffers from European institutions have been voicing their discontent over how the EU is handling Israel’s war in Gaza through regular protests. More than 1,500 have signed a letter calling out 'the EU’s continued failure to take a stance against this humanitarian catastrophe.'
EU staff protests on 13 June 2024 in Brussels. Photo credit: Sarah Schug

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

26 Jun 2024

“Celine Saed Hassan Al Khatib, 1 year old. Dahab Muhammad Zaki Al-Akhras, 1 year old, Dahab Muhammad Zaki Al-Akhras, 1 year old.” 

It’s lunchtime on a sunny June Thursday in Brussels, and instead of going to the canteen, about 100 EU staffers have gathered outside at the square between the European Commission and the Council, as they have done regularly since December. 

One of them is reading out the names of Palestinian children killed in Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Others are holding banners that read “EU staff for peace and justice” and “EU staff for immediate ceasefire”.  

“We are just standing by EU values,” says one young woman who prefers to remain anonymous. “We want Israel to comply with the U.N. resolutions and the ruling of the International Court of Justice and we want to show our protest against the EU's inactivity and against the hostilities.” 

“Being part of this organ, we should be able to call out our leadership for being inactive or even complicit with genocide,” says another. 

The reason why we drafted this letter in the first place and why we are gathering in front of the institutions today is precisely because we believe in the Union.

Protestors have begun to evoke ’genocide’ since South Africa in January accused Israel of the crime at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), with the body subsequently ordering Israel to prevent acts of genocide. Israel has rejected the charge, saying that its campaign against Hamas – the Palestinian militant organisation that governed the Gaza Strip – is justified.   

Israel invaded Gaza after the group carried out a terror attack on 7 October that killed about 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians. Hamas militants also took about 240 hostages, many of whom remain in captivity.  More than 35,000 Palestinians – roughly half women and children, according to the United Nations – and several hundred Israeli soldiers have been killed in the subsequent Israeli military operation. 

In late May, the International Criminal Courts’ prosecutor, Karim Khan, requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and three Hamas leaders, citing alleged war crimes. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have rejected the charges.  

Pressure from within 

Protests have become a regular sight outside the EU institutions: another is planned for this Thursday, this time at Place Luxembourg to coincide with a European Council meeting.  

A letter calling out the EU’s “apathy” and “inaction” regarding the crisis in Gaza has gathered 1,589 signatures from current and former staff members of EU institutions. It says that Israel’s military campaign is “in breach of international law, but also, as such, contrary to the EU’s core values and its aim to promote peace.” 

The letter, addressed to the leaders of the European Commission, Parliament and Council, condemns “the heinous attack by Hamas on 7 October… in the strongest terms,” and calls for the release of all hostages as well as an immediate ceasefire. 

For its part, a Commission spokesperson told The Parliament: “Staff members have the opportunity to express their views on a subject, bearing in mind a certain number of principles set up in the staff regulation, and the hierarchy is there to listen to that. But this has to be separated from the potential impact on the formulation of the foreign policy.” 

The spokesperson also highlighted the required “loyalty towards institutions” set out in the institution’s regulations for employees.  

“The reason why we drafted this letter in the first place and why we are gathering in front of the institutions today is precisely because we believe in the Union and because we feel loyal to the Union,” says Zeno Benetti, one of the letter’s co-authors, who works for an EU agency in Paris and made his way to Brussels for the most recent protest.   

“It's not an action directed against our institution. It's an action to uphold the values enshrined in the Union’s treaties...it is not to push my personal political agenda,” he adds.  

Personal links 

There are some in the EU institutions with a personal stake in the conflict. Both Israelis and Palestinians have links to large diaspora populations, including many in Europe.  

On the Palestinian side, some feel betrayed by the EU. 

“I felt the EU was always on the right side and cared about human rights,” says one half-Palestinian EU staffer who wishes to remain anonymous and has decided to cut their contract short. “Now it feels like it was all fake.” 

The staffer draws a comparison to the EU’s support for Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in early 2022 – both in terms of its foreign policy and its approach within European institutions.   

“There is an internal association that takes donations and organises charity events. When we tried to reach out several times asking if we can raise funds for children in Gaza, we were ignored,” they say. “Later, we received an email collecting money for Ukrainian kids. It felt insulting.” 

The EU’s former ambassador to the Palestinian Territories, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, told The Parliament that the perceived double standard will take a long time to repair.  

“I can understand why people everywhere in the world are disillusioned. Especially in the global south and in the Arab world, the EU has considerably damaged its reputation,” he says. 

Meanwhile, Benetti says that the large number of signatories to the open letter merits a response from the bloc’s leadership. “When this many employees raise the very same concern, you should at least give an explanation,” he says. 

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and Council President Charles Michel did not reply to The Parliament’s requests for comment. 

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