Brussels, Belgium – Belgian politicians and officials are increasingly questioning the scale and legality of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, as more civilians are killed and a humanitarian disaster unfolds in the densely populated enclave.
On Monday, at a conference in Brussels, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, a liberal democrat, described Israel’s campaign in Gaza as “disproportionate”.
“If you bomb an entire refugee camp with the intention of eliminating a terrorist, I don’t think it’s proportionate,” he said, but insisted that “Belgium will not take sides”.
On Wednesday, Belgium’s deputy prime minister made a rare European call for sanctions against Israel.
“It’s time,” Petra De Sutter, a Green party politician, told the Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “The rain of bombs is inhumane.”
De Sutter has also urged Hamas to release hostages and said money flows to “this terrorist organisation” must be stopped immediately.
A day later, Caroline Gennez, Belgium’s minister of development cooperation, suggested that the government was considering recognising the state of Palestine.
“This is necessary to achieve peace in the long term,” she told Al Jazeera.
And Fourat Ben Chikha, vice president of the Senate of Belgium – the federal parliament’s upper house – told Al Jazeera on Friday that “You don’t need to be a human rights professor or international lawyer to understand that international law is no longer being respected in this war.”
He said progressive parties like the Greens, to which he belongs, have begun raising their voices in support of Palestine to build political pressure.
“There is no longer any rational reason for the death and violence we are seeing in Gaza. Even for the Israelis whose relatives have been taken as hostages, the bombing of Gaza isn’t helping,” he said.
These statements appear in contrast with most leaders in Europe, where few have directly criticised Israel’s bombing campaign that began on October 7, in response to Hamas’s unprecedented attacks.
The general European view is that Israel has a right to self-defence, given the horrors of the Hamas incursion, as long as it stays within the boundaries of international law.
The Hamas assault killed more than 1,400 Israelis, and saw more than 240 kidnapped. Israel’s attacks, officially aimed at wiping out the Palestinian group that rules Gaza, have killed more than 11,000 people in 34 days, including more than 4,500 children.
After De Sutter called for sanctions against Israel, German politician Reinhard Bütikofer wrote on X: “That is not the position of the European Greens.”
“The German Greens in particular totally oppose such a move that would blame Israel for the crimes of Hamas who are using civilians as human shields.”
But the shifting tone is being welcomed by some.
Abdalrahim al-Farra, Palestine’s ambassador to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg, said he has witnessed “a clear change in the position of the Belgian government”.
“We sensed this from the principled and moral stance of Minister Caroline Gennez and Minister Petra De Sutter,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Their calls came as a countermeasure to Israel’s violation of international law and international humanitarian law, and the collective punishment on Palestinians.”
Al-Farra’s daughter is in Gaza, and some of his relatives were killed in the besieged strip due to Israeli attacks last week.
“I am convinced that Belgium’s position will influence many of the positions of some member states,” he said.
Les frappes dont sont victimes des civils innocents à Gaza sont disproportionnées et doivent cesser.
Et les otages innocents retenus par le Hamas doivent être libérés. pic.twitter.com/GUWOmbMr1I
— Alexander De Croo 🇧🇪🇪🇺 (@alexanderdecroo) November 7, 2023
Discussing the Israeli-Palestinian issue can be difficult in Belgium, because of the varying views between political parties in the Flanders in the north, Wallonia in the south, and the Brussels region.
Historically, Belgium has been known to show solidarity towards Palestine, while its official stance is also supportive of Israel. Like many in the West, Belgium has not called for a ceasefire in Gaza, despite efforts by left-wingers.
At the UN in 2012, the country voted in favour of giving Palestine “non-member” observer status. This year, it supported a UN resolution ordering the International Court of Justice to investigate Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
In 2019, two local governments boycotted a trade mission to Israel.
Peter Mertens, general secretary of the Workers Party of Belgium (Partij van de Arbeid van België), said the Belgian government “really has problems” speaking clearly on this matter “because they are being lobbied by Israel, and the lobbying from Washington is even bigger with institutions like NATO headquartered in Belgium.”
He said the public and media have been pressuring the government to take a tougher stance against Israel “as the relentless bombardment of Gaza and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians continue”.
“We’ve seen the positive announcements like a call for sanctions on Israel, more aid to Gaza and also five million euros ($5.33m) fund to support to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in investigating war crimes. But these calls are not coming from parties like the conservative Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), with some members having strong ties with Israel.
“Overall there has been no united stance from Belgium and even our party’s resolution calling for a ceasefire, and for Belgium to recall its ambassador to Israel, was turned down,” Mertens added.
‘Israel is losing this war on the ideological front’
Across Belgian cities, solidarity marches have erupted week after week, calling for peace in Palestine and the Israeli hostages to be released.
Late last month, Belgian transport workers’ unions issued a statement refusing to load and unload military equipment destined for Israel, “while a genocide is under way in Palestine”.
Prominent Belgian activist Anuna De Wever Van der Heyden said Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza is fuelling a sense of anger and sorrow.
“Israel is losing this war on the ideological and political front. The discussion among [Belgian] government parties is a sign of that,” she told Al Jazeera.
Belgian author Christophe Callewart said, “Israel has been delegitimised on a level never seen before. I don’t see how they can ever come back from that.”
Artists4Palestine Belgium, trade unions, and other pro-Palestine groups, such as BrusselsAgainstGenocide, are preparing for more Gaza solidarity protests on Saturday.