Spain, Ireland ask EU to probe if Israel violating human rights in Gaza

Request to European Commission cites accord linking human rights obligations to trade ties, obliquely raising prospect of economic sanctions for first time

Illustrative: The Israeli flag flies along the EU flag in a show of solidarity with Israel at Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall) in Berlin, October 2023. (philip1234/
Illustrative: The Israeli flag flies along the EU flag in a show of solidarity with Israel at Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall) in Berlin, October 2023. (philip1234/

Spain and Ireland on Wednesday asked the European Union to “urgently” examine whether Israel is complying with its human rights obligations in Gaza under an accord linking rights to trade ties.

The move reflects growing European frustration over the spiraling humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, for the first time evoking the prospect of economic sanctions, albeit obliquely.

In a letter, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar asked the European Commission to “act urgently,” with Israel poised to launch a full-scale ground operation into the southern city of Rafah where more than 1.4 million Palestinians are trapped.

“Given the critical situation in Rafah, Ireland, and Spain have just requested the European Commission urgently review whether Israel is complying with its obligations to respect human rights in Gaza,” Sanchez wrote on X.

Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been at war for four months, and an offensive in Rafah has prompted global alarm over the potential for mass civilian casualties.

Israeli leaders have stressed that an operation in the city is key to its goal of dismantling Hamas.

File: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, meets with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, right, and Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in the West Bank city Ramallah, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP)

In their letter, the two leaders demanded “an urgent review of whether Israel is complying with its obligations, including under the EU/Israel Association Agreement, which makes respect for human rights and democratic principles an essential element of the relationship.”

The association agreement is the main basis for the bloc’s trade ties with Israel. Signed in 1995, it came into force in 2000.

“If it considers that (Israel) is in breach,” the Commission should propose “appropriate measures,” the letter said.

‘Very brave letter’

The European Commission confirmed receiving the letter but its foreign affairs spokeswoman Nabila Massrali was not immediately able to say how it would review the human rights element of the agreement.

Spain, Ireland, and Belgium have been among the most critical in Europe of Israel’s conduct in its campaign, which was launched after Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern communities in October 7, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

They also kidnapped 253 people, of which around 130 are still inside Gaza, although Israel says 29 of them are presumed dead.

Israel has hit back with a punishing military campaign that has killed more than 28,400 people, according to figures by Hamas health authorities in the Strip. The figures cannot be independently verified, and Israel says they include at least 10,000 terror operatives, as well as those killed by failed rocket launches by terror groups.

Sanchez’s stance on the Gaza war has soured relations with Israel, which in November recalled its ambassador after he expressed doubts about the legality of its actions in Gaza.

File: Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares Bueno (right) speaks to European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after arriving for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, February 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Havana)

Although she returned in January, ties remain strained.

Hailing the letter as “very brave,” Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Manuel Albares said Sanchez was “the leader who has gone furthest in defense of human rights, international humanitarian law and, above all, of Palestinian civilians.”

‘Spain can do more’

“We’re calling for a permanent ceasefire to save the lives of thousands and thousands of Palestinian civilians which are at risk if military operations are expanded in Rafah,” he said.

“The deaths of nearly 30,000 innocent Palestinian civilians are more than enough,” he added.

Albares also said “no license to export weapons to Israel has been approved” by Spain since October 7 and none would be as long as the conflict continued.

Labor Minister Yolanda Diaz, whose radical left-wing Sumar is part of Sanchez’s coalition, has taken a much harder line.

“Spain can do more, it’s not enough to lobby the European Community,” she said, indicating Sumar wanted Spain to join South Africa’s case against Israel for alleged genocide in Gaza which went before the International Court of Justice in The Hague last month.

Diaz said she was planning to travel to the Palestinian territories to meet her counterpart, without giving a date, and saying she would use the opportunity to “denounce the brutality happening there and call for a ceasefire.”

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