Did EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel place the blame for the violence in Gaza squarely on Hamas, as numerous news reports last week suggested? “EU envoy lays Gaza blame on Hamas,” a BBC headline declared. “EU official: Hamas responsible for Gaza,” ran the headline in the Jerusalem Post. “EU commissioner hits out at Hamas on Gaza tour,” an AFP dispatch pronounced. All the articles quote Louis Michel as assigning “overwhelming responsibility” to Hamas for what he describes as the “abominable” destruction that he viewed in the Gaza strip during a brief visit on Monday, January 26.
The citation appears to have originated with the French wire service, the AFP. A French-language AFP dispatch has Michel speaking of a “responsabilité écrasante” of Hamas, which would indeed correspond to “overwhelming responsibility.” “We must, however, also remember the overwhelming responsibility of Hamas,” Louis Michel is supposed to have said. The dispatch appears, however, to refer to a press conference that the Belgian commissioner held in English, not in his native French. An extract from that press conference can be viewed here as part of a report from the French-language Israeli news channel Guysen-TV. The extract is accompanied by the following “translation” of Louis Michel’s words:
We must, however, also remember the overwhelming responsibility of Hamas. I want to say this here deliberately [à dessein]: Hamas is a terrorist movement and it must be denounced as such.
The original English-language soundtrack is not audible. It is, however, audible here, starting some 34 seconds into the video. What Louis Michel in fact says is this:
We condemn military operations that target the Palestinian people and their property, all such acts are flagrant violations of international humanitarian law.
Asked by the author about the discrepancy, Guysen reporter David Sebban said that it was the result of a “film editing error” [erreur de montage]. He confirmed that the AFP was the source of the French “translation.”
In a separate AFP video report, Michel, again speaking in English, does indeed say something about the responsibility of Hamas. What he says, however, is more precisely that Hamas bears a “very high” responsibility for the violence. Moreover, he says something else that is obviously pertinent: “also.”
“They also [have] a very high responsibility in all these things,” Michel says of Hamas in his faltering English, before adding: “Of course, I don’t accept what Israel has done.” Michel does refer to Hamas as a “terrorist movement” in the AFP clip. But inasmuch as Hamas has been officially so designated by the European Union for over five years now, this hardly represents a significant development.
Despite its self-declared “independence,” the AFP, it should be noted, is in fact heavily subsidized by the French state and its reports are well-known to reflect the imperatives of French foreign policy. One member of the Administrative Council of the AFP is indeed directly appointed by the French Foreign Ministry.
Consultation of truly independent French-language sources reveals that Michel also said many other things during his Gaza visit. Comments that were not reported by the AFP make perfectly clear that he was not, in fact, assigning the greater part of the blame — much less exclusive blame — for the Gaza events to Hamas.
Rather, it would appear that by criticizing Hamas, Michel was trying to adopt a pose of “equidistance,” after having fiercely denounced Israel during the fighting two weeks earlier. But his most recent remarks make clear that he continues to reserve a large degree of the onus — one might even say, an “overwhelming” degree — for Israel. Here, for instance, as cited by the Belgian daily Le Soir, is what Michel had to say more fully about the “abominable” destruction he viewed in Gaza:
What I saw is abominable, unjustified and unacceptable. It goes beyond any human suffering that can be described. No cause justifies a military action directed against civilians. There has been a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. I have been a witness to the massive scale of destruction, to the profound trauma of the civilian population, of which all these women and all these children have been the victims.
Michel went on, moreover, not-so-subtly to suggest that Israeli officials would have to be held accountable for Israel’s “flagrant violation” of international law:
What we should demand of Israel is the opening of all the border crossings: not only for food and medicine, but also for everything that is needed to get the economy going again. Then, it will be necessary to establish who was responsible, even if certain people do not want to hear this.