The European Union (EU) has reversed its decision to suspend aid to Palestinians in the wake of the recent attack by Hamas on Israel. The abrupt policy reversal came as EU member states voiced their concerns, accusing the bloc’s executive of overstepping its authority.
The confusion unfolded when Oliver Varhelyi, the EU’s top official for relations with neighboring countries, announced on social media platform X that the European Commission was placing its development aid for Palestinians, amounting to 691 million euros ($729 million), under review. In a surprising move, Varhelyi also declared an “immediate suspension” of all payments.
This announcement sent shockwaves throughout the EU, with multiple governments expressing alarm. They cautioned against cutting off aid, emphasizing the potential harm to Palestinian civilians. Moreover, questions arose regarding the Commission’s jurisdiction to make such a unilateral decision.
Notably, the decision created surprise because earlier on the same day, officials had indicated that aid to Palestinians would be discussed during an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers scheduled for the following day.
Publicly, countries like Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Ireland voiced their concerns, while others expressed their reservations privately. Ireland’s foreign ministry spokesperson stated, “Our understanding is that there is no legal basis for a unilateral decision of this kind by an individual Commissioner, and we do not support a suspension of aid.”
However, it wasn’t until more than five hours later that the Commission issued a statement, confirming an urgent review of aid but clarifying that “no payments were foreseen,” thus ruling out a suspension of payments.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell then added to the confusion by stating that the EU would not suspend “due payments,” despite the Commission’s statement that no payments were scheduled. The Commission declined to provide further clarification on this discrepancy but emphasized that humanitarian aid, separate from development funds, would continue.
The review was initiated with the aim of ensuring that EU funding would not inadvertently support terrorist organizations targeting Israel, following the Hamas attack, which resulted in the deaths of more than 900 Israelis and the abduction of dozens, marking the deadliest incursion since the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago. In response, Israel launched its most extensive bombardment of Gaza, resulting in over 680 casualties.
The EU’s response to this complex situation highlights the long-standing divisions within the 27-member bloc regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, despite unanimous condemnation of the recent attack.
While Germany and Austria announced the suspension of their development aid to Palestinians earlier in the day, Italy declared that suspending aid was not under consideration. Europe plays a vital role as one of the primary sources of aid to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, where approximately 2.1 million people, including 1 million children, require humanitarian assistance, as estimated by the United Nations.
Under the 2022 budget allocation, the EU had earmarked 296 million euros for assistance to the Palestinian people. Notably, the EU, Germany, and Austria did not differentiate between Gaza, governed by Hamas, and the larger West Bank, controlled by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
Development Minister Svenja Schulze of Germany’s Social Democrats clarified that no payments were currently being made for bilateral aid projects, as Berlin reevaluated its engagement with the Palestinian territories. She stressed that this decision symbolized Germany’s unwavering solidarity with Israel.
Germany’s development ministry had set aside 250 million euros for bilateral projects in the Palestinian territories for this and the next year, without specifying the amount disbursed thus far this year. German politicians underscored their country’s commitment to Israel’s security in light of its historic responsibility for the Holocaust. The Israeli flag was projected onto Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate as a symbol of support.
However, some politicians in Germany criticized the decision to suspend aid, highlighting that not all Palestinians were responsible for the Hamas attack. Additionally, the Greens-run foreign ministry indicated that it would continue disbursing the 73 million euros allocated for Palestinians, separate from the development ministry funds, the majority of which had already been utilized.
Austria’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Schallenberg, announced the suspension of around 19 million euros ($20 million) in development aid for specific projects. Austria, known for its neutral stance, has adopted one of the most pro-Israel positions within the EU in recent years, symbolized by the hoisting of the Israeli flag above its chancellor’s office and the Foreign Ministry following the Hamas attack.
In this dynamic and evolving situation, the EU’s response underscores the challenges of navigating geopolitical conflicts and humanitarian crises while attempting to balance various interests and alliances.