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The West’s perceived double standards in Gaza widen the gap with the Global South

Criticism over the position towards Israel undermines the ability of the US and the EU to project their values and interests in emerging and developing countries

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
U.S. President Joe Biden is received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 18 in Tel Aviv.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

The position of Western nations in the face of Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas attacks has sharpened the Global South’s perception of double standards. The comparison between the West’s cries against the illegal occupation of territory and the harm inflicted on civilians by Russia in Ukraine, and the arguments it has deployed regarding Israel’s actions, has in emerging and developing countries provoked a widespread sense of hypocrisy on the part of the Western powers.

Naturally, the Western position is not monolithic and neither is that of the Global South — a definition that clumps together a heterogeneous group — and nor are the two conflicts the same. But there are plenty of factual elements to drive this sense of Western duplicity in the rest of the world (and within their own societies). This trend is a tangible fact — regardless of the extent to which it is justified — and represents a serious setback for a West that has long been seeking closer ties with the countries of the Global South amid growing competition between powers that are also maneuvering to win the favor of this nebula of nations.

The Western attitude is neither static nor univocal. Over the weeks, as the Israeli response has inflicted enormous damage on Gaza’s civilians, Westerners have changed their tone and position. The United States, a great supporter of Israel, let a United Nations resolution calling for a truce pass without condemning the Hamas attack and there are countries — such as Spain, Belgium and Ireland — that have expressed clear criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Josep Borrell, has also made clear statements. But, for many, the turnaround on the part of the principal countries — such as the U.S., Germany, the UK, and Italy — comes too late and is insufficient. Other images, such as that of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveling to Israel and expressing unqualified support when the bombing was already brutal, and displaying no interest in meeting with the Palestinian National Authority, are very difficult to erase.

“The Western position is becoming less monolithic. But the initial hesitation to criticize the suffering inflicted on Palestinian civilians, which from early on already looked severe, has spurred in the Global South a sense of hypocrisy in the West; a perception that it does not apply international law universally, but rather selectively,” says Oliver Stuenkel, professor at the School of International Relations at Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

“There is a perception of double standards with respect to Gaza now, but also a general one, prior to the current outbreak of violence, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. In my view, these perceptions are largely substantiated, and are amplified by comparison with Europe’s response to the Russian war in Ukraine,” says Hugh Lovatt, senior expert on the Middle East, international law, and armed conflict at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Each conflict has its own characteristics. But from an international law point of view there are clear parallels [between Ukraine and Gaza], not only in terms of requirements to minimize harm to civilians, but also in the inadmissibility of territorial acquisitions by force.”

The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza differ, among other reasons, because Russia was not attacked while Israel is responding to the Hamas incursions of October 7, which killed 1,200 of its citizens. However, in any case, international law demands that a distinction be made between military and civilian targets. Collective punishment is a crime. The scale of the destruction caused by the Israeli bombardment and the indiscriminate blockade cutting off water, electricity, food, and medical supplies, with only a few exceptions, paint a picture that many experts believe to be criminal. There are also plenty of elements to consider the Israeli occupation of Palestine illegal.

“Europeans are right to denounce Russia’s actions in Ukraine. However, when you see similar scenes in terms of civilian suffering in Gaza and the reaction is not the same, it feeds the perception of double standards and weakens Europe, which defines itself as a defender of certain values and which has often given the impression of lecturing others on this matter but then does not always show itself to be consistent,” says Lovatt.

History repeating itself

The current conflict takes on particular relevance in light of the history under which it is taking place. It is not an isolated event. “The war in Gaza has given new substance to the West’s perceived double standards, but that didn’t start with this crisis,” adds Stuenkel. While the illegal invasion of Iraq led by the U.S. in 2003 and backed by other Western countries — though not all — is the most cited example, there are deeper historical roots that play a role in the present, and these concern colonialism.

“A considerable portion of leaders and voters in the Global South view the war in Gaza through the prism of the logic of colonizers versus colonized,” Stuenkel says. “It would be an exaggeration to consider that anti-colonialist sentiment is decisive in shaping the strategies of these countries, but it is certainly one of the elements through which they construct their worldview. Its weight differs according to the regions; for example, in West Africa it is particularly marked, and Russia has been able to make good use of it. In any case, it is something that Western observers would do well to take into account.”

The reference to Russia’s actions — highly skilled in the international propagation and manipulation of narratives favorable to its interests — highlights the risks of the perceived double standards of the West in the great global power competition.

Ties with China, Russia, and India

In this competition, each of the major players seeks to strengthen relations with countries in the Southern Hemisphere to shore up its position vis-à-vis the others. China has been doing so for decades, taking advantage of economic-technological leverage, with loans, trade, infrastructure, construction, and the provision of technological services. Russia is trying to do so through the provision of security services, arms sales (although its war in Ukraine is now complicating the process), or propagandistic agitation. India is increasingly active at the political level, trying to position itself as an independent actor capable of truthfully representing the interests of this heterogeneous group.

“There is no doubt that the West has lost influence in the Global South over the past two decades, not least because of the rise of China’s political and economic influence, in line with a general shift of economic weight toward East Asia,” says Stuenkel.

The West has realized, somewhat belatedly, the importance of cultivating relations with this part of the world, and is now trying to catch up. Part of that strategy, for example, are the projects to promote a transportation, energy, and digital corridor between India and Europe, and another, less ambitious one, in West Africa, which were both announced at the G-20 summit last September.

The former, which was planned to pass through Israel, has been compromised by the current conflict. Other initiatives with a similar logic, such as those attached to the EU’s Global Gateway funding project, remain largely in a gaseous state, while China has already injected $1 billion over the last decade into its New Silk Road Initiative.

“However, if you take a country like Brazil, the EU or the U.S. still invests more than China, and the G-7 invests more than the other BRICS partners,” says Stuenkel. “As for the EU in particular, it has lost a lot of influence, but if the free trade agreement with Mercosur were to be ratified, it could regain at least some of it.”

The perception of double standards in the Gaza crisis is a serious setback because it feeds a bad image in the public opinions of many countries, some of which already orbit far from the Western sphere. This is an important factor. However, it is not definitive. Indications abound that, amid the great competition between powers in the Northern Hemisphere, many in the South are seeking to discern what is in their best interest, making decisions just as many of the above are: more for interests than for values.

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