Von der Leyen’s comments on Israel-Hamas conflict lacked balance – Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised Ms von der Leyen’s comments (Brian Lawless/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised Ms von der Leyen’s comments (Brian Lawless/PA) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised Ms von der Leyen’s comments (Brian Lawless/PA)

Some of the European Commission president’s comments on the Israel-Hamas conflict have “lacked balance”, Ireland’s premier has said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he had told Ursula von der Leyen his views on remarks she made on her visit to Israel last Friday.

The Commission president has faced criticism for stating her support for Israel without any call for its actions in Gaza to comply with international law.

On Monday, Irish President Michael D Higgins criticised the EU Commission President, insisting she was “not speaking for Ireland”.

Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen Ursula von der Leyen’s initial comments drew criticism (Henry Nicholls/PA)

Mr Varadkar faced calls to condemn Ms von der Leyen as he faced questions in the Dail parliament on Tuesday. He appeared in the chamber ahead of participating in an emergency summit of EU leaders to discuss the crisis in the Middle East.

He said while he believed the Commission President’s comments had “lacked balance”, he said her more recent statements on the war were more appropriate.

“The position of the European Union is the one agreed in the statement by the European Council and that was agreed on Sunday, after a lot of conversations over the weekend,” he said.

“And I hope we’ll be in a position to build on that position today at the extraordinary council of the European Union.

“It is the case that each EU member state has its own foreign policy. We only have a common foreign policy when we agree to have one and we can agree join statements.

“And while I think that President von der Leyen has done an extremely good job as President of the European Commission, whether it’s on issues such as climate issues, such as Covid issues, such as Ukraine, some of the statements that she made lacked balance, in my view. And I said that to her and I have no difficulty saying that.

Gaza graphic
Gaza graphic (PA Graphics)

“I do think statements that she’s made more recently were more balanced, specifically talking about the tripling of humanitarian aid for Gaza, and also the attempts that we’re making at the moment to organise a UN humanitarian airbridge from Gaza through Egypt.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald heavily criticised Ms von der Leyen during the exchanges at Leaders’ Questions.

“EU Commission President von der Leyen’s unqualified support for Israel’s unmerciful military attack on the people of Gaza, her failure to assert the primacy of international law was reckless, inflammatory and dangerous,” she said.

“Ms von der Leyen does not speak for Ireland.”

Ms McDonald repeated her condemnation of the Hamas attacks, but she insisted Israel’s actions were “not defensive”.

“They are an offensive attack against a beleaguered, impoverished civilian population,” she said.

“It is the horrible crescendo of occupation, annexation and apartheid. This is not defence. These are crimes against human rights perpetrated in full view of the world. And if we don’t call this what it is, if the international community doesn’t stand unified against it, then history will record this as the defining failure of our generation and our children and our grandchildren will ask us how this was allowed to happen.

“Peace and justice demands that Gaza not become the graveyard of international law.

Air strike wreckage
Air strike wreckage Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli air strike on Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip (AP)

“Israel’s blockade must end, the bombardment of Gaza must stop and ceasefires called, hostages released and space created for a dialogue.”

Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns had called on Mr Varadkar to condemn the Commission President.

“This isn’t a war, it’s a genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the response of the EU has not just been inadequate, it has been callous, indifferent and dangerous,” she said.

“This reached rock bottom on Friday when Ursula von der Leyen visited Israel. By then Israel had dropped 6,000 bombs and on an area half the size of Louth. Thousands were dead and injured. Food, water and electricity supplies had been cut off and the Israeli government had given 1.2 million people 24 hours-notice to leave northern Gaza.

“What was the European Commission President’s response to this litany of war crimes and breaches of international law? She stood with the Israeli prime minister and offered him the EU’s unqualified and unconditional support.

“She said Israel can count on the EU.

“Taoiseach, last year when Russia targeted civilian infrastructure and cut off electricity supplies, Ursula von der Leyen called out their war crimes.

“When Israel acts similarly, she not only fails to utter a single word of criticism, she goes to the region to offer support for their war crimes in our name.

“The Commission President’s failure to unequivocally condemn Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people has undermined the EU’s response to this crisis. Given von der Leyen has no authority to override member states’ foreign policy positions, her comments also amounted to a serious overreach of authority.”

Mr Varadkar reiterated his view that Israel could not inflict “collective punishment” on the people of Gaza for the actions of Hamas.

“I want to say once again that Ireland unreservedly condemns the brutal attack by Hamas and other militant groups on Israel and the devastating loss of life that it has caused,” he said.

“We also condemn the terrorist attacks that occurred in France last week and Belgium only yesterday.

“We also demand the release of all hostages without any conditions immediately. Israel has the right to defend itself and to pursue Hamas terrorists who attacked its civilian population, and we accept that right.

“However, Israel’s response must be exercised within the parameters of international humanitarian law. Even wars have rules. Collective punishment should not be inflicted on the population in Gaza. Citizens must be protected and Gaza must have access to humanitarian aid.

“There must be the establishment of humanitarian corridors. There’s also a need to prevent the conflict from escalating and spreading to other parts of the region, which is an enormous concern at the moment.”

He added: “It is the case that Hamas hides itself among the civilian population, but they’re not to blame for that and there can be no excuse and no acceptance of civilians being targeted, or civilian infrastructure being targeted in this way.”