Israel-Hamas war tests Western unity as Global South slams ‘double standards’

International responses to the October 7 Hamas attack were broadly split between the Global North and South over condemnations of the killings of just Israeli civilians in the terror attack or all civilians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as the Gaza humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, divisions are increasing within the West.  

It was supposed to be a landmark visit, featuring a politically seasoned US president arriving in an active war zone to hold talks with representatives on both sides of a longstanding conflict that had reached a crisis point. 

US President Joe Biden’s Mideast visit was meant to mark America’s return to a geopolitical zone after a “pivot” in recent years, but where Washington still has the clout to bring aggrieved regional players together. 

But when the octogenarian US president stepped off Air Force One at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport and into the arms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Middle East’s once celebrated “honest broker” appeared more broken than honest.  

After Tuesday night’s devastating strike on a hospital in besieged Gaza, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled their scheduled meeting with Biden. 

The honest broker had flown more than 9,000 kilometres to talk to just one side. What’s more, in a changing world of emerging powers and declining American influence, the US appeared more one-sided than it’s ever been on a crisis in its seventh decade. 

“When this kind of visit takes place, there are two things that are necessary, and both begin with a ‘T’. One is talks and the other is trust. And both of those have been severely shaken up by this bombing attack on the hospital. This has seriously undermined President Biden’s ability to show himself as a mediator in this crisis,” explained FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor Philippe Turle.  

Israel has traded blame with Palestinian militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, over the devastating attack on the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City. But in the absence of an independent investigation, the Israeli military’s assertion that the blast was due to a missile misfire by Islamic Jihad failed to assuage the anger spreading across the Arab world. Protests erupted on Wednesday in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iran, Libya and Yemen. Many were staged outside the embassies of major Western powers, the US, UK and France. 

Protesters wave Palestinian flags, near the US consulate in Awkar, Lebanon on October 18, 2023.
Protesters wave Palestinian flags, near the US consulate in Awkar, Lebanon on October 18, 2023. © Zohra Bensemra, Reuters

Anger on the “Arab street” is one of the clichés of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which at times plays out along predictable lines. 

But more than a year after the West suffered a rude shock when the countries of the Global South stayed neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, patience is running out on the old ways of doing diplomatic business.  When castigated over their failure to uphold the tenets of international law, Global South countries have cited the West’s “double standards” as well as its selective response to aggression and the use of asymmetric force. 

If the Russian invasion of Ukraine exposed divisions in the international community, the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tearing it apart, particularly among emerging powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America, many of whom do not share the Eurocentric histories of the old major global players. 

Read moreUkraine war exposes splits between Global North and South

But the latest Middle East crisis is not just ripping apart the Global North and South. It’s also irking some of Washington’s European allies who have worked hard since the Russian invasion of Ukraine to build consensus around a respect for international law and universal human rights. 

‘Selective rules of the game’   

The divisions emerged immediately after the October 7, with international responses split between the countries that focused entirely on condemning the shock Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on the one hand, and those that also referenced the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Two days after the attack, the leaders of five leading Western nations – the US, France, Germany, Britain and Italy – released a joint statement expressing “our steadfast and united support to the State of Israel, and our unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism”. The lengthy statement briefly mentioned “the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people”, but there were no details on how they could be achieved or what derailed them. 

On the other hand, South Africa, for instance, released a statement on the day of the attack, calling for an “immediate cessation of violence, restraint, and peace between Israel and Palestine”. Hamas was not named in the statement.

Mapping the splits, French geopolitical journal, Le Grand Continent, divided the responses into three categories: countries strongly supporting Israel, countries calling for a ceasefire and finally, countries supporting Hamas. 

Reactions to the October 7 Hamas attack have split the international community.
Reactions to the October 7 Hamas attack have split the international community. © FRANCE 24 screengrab

“This crisis is without any doubt increasing the divisions, because this is reinforcing the Global South narrative of [the West’s] double standards,” said Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria and a special advisor to the Paris-based Institut Montaigne. 

From the Global South perspective, economic and geostrategic interests drove the splits over the Ukraine war. The Israeli-Palestinian divide is driven by emotional baggage and for countries that emerged after World War II, patience is running out. “It’s more about the West is hypocritical and gives priority not so much to their interests as their own feelings. The West has special feelings for Israel and Israeli interests, Israeli pain, in emotional terms. In the Global South, this is seen as selective emotion and selective rules of the game,” explained Duclos. 

US casts a shock UN veto 

“It’s not that the Global South is all united and has one single position – that’s unlikely in these circumstances,” said Sarang Shidore, director of the Global South Program at the Washington DC-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “The question is, are there enough countries in the Global South that are animated by this issue and are significant players? And, are they willing to push back and make their views well known? The answer to both questions is yes.” 

The nature of the response, according to Shidore, would depend on developments in the Gaza Strip. If the humanitarian situation in the besieged Palestinian enclave deteriorates, some Global South countries could push for a UN General Assembly vote, particularly if the stalemate in the 15-member UN Security Council continues. 

On Wednesday, as Biden was telling reporters in Tel Aviv that he convinced Israel to allow limited humanitarian aid into Gaza, the US was playing a different tune at UN headquarters in New York. 

In a shock move, the US vetoed a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling for humanitarian pauses to enable aid access into the besieged Gaza Strip. 

The resolution, sponsored by Brazil, condemned violence against all civilians, including “the heinous terrorist attacks by Hamas”. Twelve countries in the 15-member Security Council voted in favour. Russia and the UK abstained. The US, a permanent Security Council member, cast the decisive veto.  US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield criticised the resolution for not saying anything about Israel’s right to self-defence.

It was the second UNSC resolution on the Israel-Hamas conflict to fail. On Monday, the Security Council rejected a Russian-drafted resolution that called for an “immediate ceasefire”, “unimpeded” humanitarian access to Gaza, and a condemnation of “all” civilian killings, Israeli and Palestinian.  

The US, UK, France and Japan voted against the Russian resolution. At that time, Thomas-Greenfield slammed Moscow for failing to mention Hamas in the draft text. 

No to ‘ceasefire’, yes to ‘duty to respond’ 

Semantics are serious business at the UN, and it was not merely the omission of Hamas, but also the inclusion of the word “ceasefire” that ensured the Russian resolution was dead on arrival. 

Shortly after Israel started pounding the Gaza Strip last week, the US State Department sent a directive warning US diplomats against using three specific phrases: “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm”, according to a Huffington Post report, which was confirmed by the Washington Post.

Washington meanwhile has tweaked its commitment to Israel’s “right to respond”, upgrading it over the past few days to a “duty to respond”. 

The Brazilian draft UNSC resolution was put to vote after days of difficult negotiations and two delays in a bid to get a consensus. Following Wednesday’s veto, China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun accused the US of leading Security Council members to believe the resolution could be adopted after it did not express opposition during negotiations. He described the vote as “nothing short of unbelievable”.

The US traditionally shields its ally Israel from any Security Council action. But this time, Brazil – a founding member of the BRICS bloc of emerging economies who currently holds the rotating Security Council presidency – released an irked statement regretting Washington’s blocking of the vote. 

“Brazil considers it urgent for the international community to establish a ceasefire and resume the peace process,” said a Brazilian Foreign Ministry statement. 

EU splits burst out in public 

For the first time since the October 7 Hamas attack, France broke ranks with its Western allies on the Security Council on Wednesday, when it voted in favour of the Brazilian draft resolution. 

In its statement, the French foreign ministry expressed “regret” over the failure at the Security Council. “The text unequivocally condemned Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel, demanded the release of hostages, urged respect by all for international humanitarian law,” noted the statement.

Israel’s deadly bombardment of the Gaza Strip after blocking fuel, water, medication and food supplies has sparked rifts in the US-EU partnership that are mostly contained within closed doors but have occasionally erupted in public. 

At an emergency video summit of EU leaders on Tuesday, several leaders warned that failing to uphold the rights of Palestinians in Gaza risked exposing western states to the charge of hypocrisy, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing multiple officials briefed on the discussion.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has faced a backlash from EU leaders and lawmakers for not explicitly calling on Israel to respect international law in its war on Gaza during a trip to Israel last week.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar publicly declared the European Commission president’s comments “lacked balance” and insisted that she was “not speaking for Ireland”.   

“The Europeans are getting concerned about being viewed as not standing up for international law. Ursula von der Leyen’s stance of unreserved solidarity for Israel is being seen as one-sided and causing them to lose soft power in the Global South. Europe depends more on soft power than the US, which often relies more on hard power, though that is increasingly turning out to be counterproductive,” said Shidore.  

Both the US and the EU have increased humanitarian funding for Palestinians since the Israeli bombardments following the Hamas attack. The EU’s aid to the Palestinians is the “price of their guilty conscience about the disappearance of the prospect of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” noted French journalist and writer Gilles Paris in Le Monde. 

The question, though, is how long will Brussels tolerate the repeated Israeli destruction of Gaza infrastructure funded by the EU. The 27-member bloc has long been divided over the issue, but the debate has been held behind closed doors. If the EU decides to move the debate on to the public and policy stage, it could receive considerable help from the Global South.

The US has the military hardware to weather differences with its European allies over the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But it will not gain friends in the soft power competition, and both, Russia and China are ready and able to take its place in the Global South community that is emerging to change the existing world order. 

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