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EU seeks answers to rising security challenges as Israel-Hamas war fuels new concerns

Officials from across the 27-nation group have expressed concerns about a rise in antisemitic attacks, and the need to speed up the deportation of people who might pose a public danger

Israel-Hamas War
Police secures evidence after two molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue overnight in Berlin, Germany, October 18, 2023.TOBIAS SCHLIE (REUTERS)

European Union interior ministers on Thursday debated how to manage the impact of the war between Israel and Hamas on the bloc, amid heightened security tensions after a firebomb assault on a Berlin synagogue and killings in Belgium and France by suspected Islamist extremists.

Officials from across the 27-nation EU have expressed concerns about a rise in antisemitic attacks, the radicalization of young people online, the use of encrypted messaging services by criminals or extremists, and the need to speed up the deportation of people who might pose a public danger.

But calls for an increase in security across the board are also creating deep unease as the solutions being discussed could undermine free movement and the right to assemble in Europe.

Italy is introducing border checks to counter a possible rise in tensions over the Israel-Hamas war. Denmark and Sweden are too, due to what they say is an “Islamist terrorist threat.” France intends to keep checks in place until at least May 2024, citing “new terrorist threats and external borders situation.” More police have been deployed in Belgium, France and Germany.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell believes that part of the solution to Europe’s security woes must involve the bloc helping diplomatically and financially to bring an end to years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. “We have learned from history that the most difficult decisions are always taken when we are on the edge of the abyss. I believe that is where we are now: on the edge of the abyss,” Borrell told EU lawmakers on Wednesday.

“When I hear Muslim religious authorities speaking the language of inter-religious conflict and explicitly stating that Europe is a party to this conflict, I feel that the storm clouds are looming,” he said. Still, not all of Europe’s challenges are directly linked to the war.

Earlier on Thursday, Sweden hosted a meeting of ministers from eight countries, among them Germany, Belgium and France, focused on how to handle incidents where people burn the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

Prosecutors are trying to establish whether that was a key motive for a Tunisian man who shot three Swedes in Brussels on Monday, killing two of them, ahead of a Belgium-Sweden soccer match in the capital.

While the Quran burnings are not directly linked to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, they are a sign of rising tensions between religious and other communities in Europe.

The war that began Oct. 7 has become the deadliest of five Gaza wars for both sides. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said Wednesday that 3,478 Palestinians have been killed and more than 12,000 injured in the past 11 days.

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, and at least 199 others, including children, were captured by Hamas and taken into Gaza, according to Israeli authorities. “We have to address multiple impacts from the continuing crisis in the Middle East” in the EU, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said.

“This entails the protection of our Jewish communities, but also the protection against a generalized climate of Islamophobia that has no place in our society,” he told reporters in Luxembourg, where the meetings were held.

Pro-Palestinian rallies have been held in several European cities since the war. France has banned them. Germany has also promised to take tougher action against Hamas, which is already on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations.

After assailants threw two Molotov cocktails at the Berlin synagogue on Wednesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that “we will never accept when attacks are carried out against Jewish institutions.”

In France, the Palace of Versailles — a major tourist attraction — and three airports were evacuated for security reasons and temporarily closed Wednesday. The incidents were the latest in a spate of evacuations in the past five days, and the French government is threatening to fine or jail prank callers. They followed the killing of a teacher in northern France on Friday by a suspected Islamist extremist.

French Interior Minister Gerland Darmanin noted that two foreigners were behind the recent attacks in Belgium and France, and he insisted that long-delayed reforms of EU asylum rules must be put in place.

Europe must “manage our borders, register people and conduct the security interviews that are necessary before every asylum request,” he told reporters. Belgium’s top migration official, Nicole de Moor, said that “we are facing terror in the streets of our cities, in France, in Belgium, and we cannot tolerate this. Innocent people are dying, and this is unacceptable.”

She said tougher deportation laws are needed and countries that refuse to take back their nationals must be made to cooperate. The EU has agreements with Turkey and Tunisia to get them to prevent migrants reaching Europe but they are not working. Other deals, with Egypt notably, are planned.

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