Israel-Palestine: fundamental attitudes to the conflict among Western Europeans

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
December 20, 2023, 10:05 AM GMT+0

Do Europeans feel they understand each sides’ motivations, and do they see their actions as justified?

With the renewed fighting in Israel and Palestine now in its third month, a new YouGov Eurotrack survey conducted in seven Western European nations – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark and Sweden – explores fundamental attitudes to the conflict, including whether Europeans can understand the mindsets of its participants, whether they think each side’s attacks were justified, and how they think the conflict should be resolved in the short and long term.

The survey was conducted in mid-November, prior to the temporary ceasefire, except in Germany, where fieldwork took place in early December.

Where do sympathies lie?

In no country does any side get greater than three in ten people saying they are more sympathetic to that faction’s plight.

The most pro-Israeli country is Germany, where 29% say they sympathise more with them rather than the Palestinians (12%). Nevertheless, this represents a notable nine point drop for Israel since October – expressing sympathy primarily for Israel has dipped across the countries surveyed, although this is unsurprising as the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks was always likely to be the high watermark.

Spain proves to be the most pro-Palestinian country, with 27% sympathising with that side more compared to 19% for Israel.

Between 24-31% of people in each country say they sympathise with both sides equally, and a further 27-37% say they are unsure (many of those answering “don’t know” to this and subsequent questions will be largely unfamiliar or uninterested in the geopolitical goings-on in the region, while others will be genuinely torn on what is a highly complex and contentious issue).

Do Western Europeans think they understand the attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians towards the conflict?

In Britain, France, Denmark and Sweden the public tend to say they can understand the motivations of each side, even if they don’t agree with them – and to about the same extent for each side.

In Germany, however, the public are substantially more likely to think they understand the Israeli mindset than the Palestinian one. While Germans say they understand Israeli attitudes by 49% to 30%, when it comes to Palestinian attitudes they say they cannot understand them by 45% to 33%.

To a lesser extent, the opposite is true in Spain. While Spaniards say they can understand the Palestinian mindset by 46% to 30%, they are divided in whether or not they feel they get where Israelis are coming from, at 39% to 39%.

Italians are somewhat divided for both sides of the conflict, being split 34% to 32% on the Palestinian attitudes and by 36% to 29% for Israeli views.

Do Western Europeans think the actions by Hamas and Israel are justified?

Few in each country surveyed feel the Hamas attacks on Israel were justified, ranging from 4% in Britain to 11% in France. Between 64% and 80% say the October attacks were not justified, with 17% to 26% unsure.

By contrast, more people see Israel’s attacks on Gaza in response as justified (18-35%) – although the tendency is to still see them as unjustified, with the Spanish (59%) and Italians (56%) most likely to say so. The French are an outlier here, being closely divided, with 37% saying Israel’s attacks are justified compared to 34% who disagree.

Attitudes on ending the conflict, short- and long-term

While Israel has said it intends to keep fighting until Hamas is destroyed, when posed the choice between continued military action and a ceasefire, most Western Europeans (55-73%) said they thought Israel should stop and call a ceasefire. (As noted above, fieldwork in most countries was conducted prior to the ceasefire in late November, although it is unlikely that desire for a ceasefire has diminished in the intervening period).

At that time, between 8% and 24% thought that Israel should continue to fight.

While many may find Hamas unpalatable, most do believe that Israel should be willing to enter into peace negotiations with Israel (58-73%). Between 12-23% think Israel should refuse to do so.

More still in each country say that Hamas should likewise be prepared to enter into negotiations with Israel (66-83%), with 4-11% disagreeing.

In the long term, when it comes to resolving the decades-long conflict, a ‘two state solution’ is the only one which garners majority support in Western Europe. Between 60% and 70% in each country give this approach their backing.

An alternative ‘one state solution’ – a single nation that would be home to both Jews and Palestinians – receives far less support, at 20-30%.

Dramatic maximalist positions which would see one side or the other expelled from the region receive little support in any country, at 5-13%.

The most likely outcome for the time being – the status quo – is satisfactory to very few, with only 8-14% saying they would support things remaining as they are.

Regardless, there is limited expectation that a permanent peace deal is realistically possible in the near future. Only between 14% and 31% in each country think it is plausible that the wider conflict can be brought to an end in the next decade – 40% to 62% see it as an impossibility.

Human shields and collateral damage

Charges have been levelled at both sides that civilians in the conflict zone are being put in harm’s way. Hamas has frequently been accused of using civilians as human shields for military targets, while Israel has likewise been criticised for apparently failing to minimize civilian casualties with its air strikes.

Most people in every country surveyed say they believe Hamas uses civilians as human shields (59-69%). Just 9-13% do not believe Hamas employs such tactics.

There is more division on whether Israel attempts to show restraint when it comes to its strikes in Gaza. While in France people are more likely to think Israel tries to minimize civilian casualties (by 40% to 32%), Germans are divided, and in the other countries surveyed the general expectation is that they do not. Spaniards are particularly likely to think Israel is not trying to limit collateral damage to civilians, at 55%.

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