Whose Ground Zero? Competing Perspectives of the Israel-Hamas War

November 27, 2023
5 min read
Photo credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com
The United States’ and Europe’s perceived moral waywardness on Ukraine and Gaza is provoking global outrage and risking lasting damage to their relations with non-Western allies. Autocracies sense an opportunity.

The tide of global public opinion has turned since Israel responded to Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack with a campaign on the besieged Gaza Strip that has reportedly killed more than 13,000 civilians. A UN General Assembly vote on October 27 saw an overwhelming majority of 120 countries favor an immediate truce and adherence to international humanitarian law, but most Western countries opposed or abstained from the resolution. The United States and Europe suddenly find themselves isolated in their decidedly pro-Israel stance, which to many around the world appears to confirm a long-standing perception that the West applies moral principles only when they align with immediate strategic interests. On the Israel-Hamas war, the international community is signaling that the West is on the wrong side of history.

In his recent book, “Homelands: A Personal History of Europe”, British historian Timothy Garton Ash describes the fundamental changes that the continent’s trajectory took at key historical turning points such as the outbreak of World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Garton Ash, however, also describes how countries, continents, and cohorts may experience the same event differently and how that can have distinct impacts on societies.

On the Israel-Hamas war, the international community is signaling that the West is on the wrong side of history.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is another such turning point for Europe and the United States. They see that war as a fundamental inflection point of world politics, a battle between democracy and autocracy in which Ukraine is ground zero of a future world order. But key allies, it soon became clear, do not bestow the same singular significance to the event, even if many are critical of the Kremlin’s actions. This has created significant friction and unease in Western capitals, especially (but not exclusively) when they have sought allies’ assistance to deter Russian ambitions or mitigate the war’s economic and strategic fallout. Some transatlantic stakeholders quickly dismissed the more cautious take on the invasion as a betrayal of loyalty or, at the very least, a lack of commitment to shared fundamental values. UN General Assembly voting charts have turned into a tool to separate friends from foes and a score card for global soft power.

The reasons for the divergent perspectives of the West’s partners in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, however, are nuanced. Some are too economically dependent on or politically threatened by the Kremlin to take an anti-Russia stance. Some fear that indispensable national interests, such as access to food and energy, are at stake. And some, anticipating the emergence of a more multipolar international system, choose to hedge and preserve their room for maneuver by not picking sides. Many, however, consider the war in Ukraine to be a primarily European issue and criticize Western expectations of international solidarity with the country while other conflicts, invasions, and occupations do not kindle the same outrage. Even before the recent escalation in Israel and Gaza, the Palestinian example was often cited as the poster child of an illegal, yet Western-backed occupation.

These responses served as a lesson to Western capitals. They learned that aligning emerging and developing countries with Western agendas and policies is harder yet more necessary than anticipated. Initiatives quickly sprouted to build closer ties with the so-called Global South, a blurry amalgam of geographic, economic, and political criteria that lumps together countries outside Western-dominated groupings and usually excludes Russia and China. As the West, and in particular US policymakers, have seen ties with the South increasingly as a means to contain Russia and China, these relations have too often focused not on shared strategic interests but on keeping Southern allies in the Western camp.

The West’s relative isolation on the Gaza question heralds a potentially significant loss of global soft power from which China, Iran, and Russia can gain.

Fast forward to October 7. Hamas’ attack and mass slaughter of Israeli civilians led the United States to position itself unequivocally on Israel’s side, and Europe followed after much internal back-and-forth. The transatlantic partners emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense and strongly condemned Hamas. Much of the non-Western world followed suit until the Israeli response and its impact on civilians in Gaza unleashed criticism of disproportionality and incompatibility with international humanitarian law. US diplomatic cables are already noting that the Israeli campaign will mark generations in the Arab and, possibly, broader Muslim world. Allies there and elsewhere outside the transatlantic community feel that they heeded the call to support Ukraine while the West fails to acknowledge theirs for Gaza. An existing North-South chasm that transcends Israel, Palestine, and Ukraine, and the human suffering there, has deepened. This chasm now encompasses a clash over who holds ultimate authority to interpret global events.

The West’s relative isolation on the Gaza question heralds a potentially significant loss of global soft power from which China, Iran, and Russia can gain. Each exploits the perception of outdated Western notions of international power and partnerships to position itself as a true friend of the developing and emergent powers in the South. Each is now instrumentalizing, on an unprecedented scale, the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on social networks to advance long-standing public diplomacy goals.

The US and European failure to confront the continuing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza with the same rigor seen in Ukraine risks the perception, in many parts of the world, of Western opportunism to impose its interpretation of global events on others. Developing countries and middle powers compare Gaza with Ukraine and see Western disregard for and disrespect of their priorities and perspectives. The damage this could do to their relations with the West could be lasting if the transatlantic partners do not develop a more insightful understanding of and more nuanced policies for today’s dynamic and complex global alliances.