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Germany's delicate role in the Israel-Hamas conflict

November 19, 2023

In the latest Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, Germany must navigate its self-described special bond with Israel and the diplomacy required to resolve a desperate humanitarian situation.

Annalena Baerbock boarding a plane
Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock engages in intensive shuttle diplomacyImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has completed her third Middle East mission since the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7, which Israel's government says killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians. It provoked Israel's most intense bombardment of Gaza in decades.

This trip took Baerbock to Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Her primary goal was to alleviate civilian suffering in Gaza and work towards freeing hostages that Hamas took from Israel during its initial attack. At the same time, Baerbock wants to help ensure that the conflict does not spread and — in the very long term — work towards a possible peace solution.

German diplomacy on this issue faces a difficult balance to strike. It requires "influencing all sides to bring this conflict to an end as quickly as possible, in such a way that guarantees Israel's security and creates prospects for the Palestinians," Hans-Jakob Schindler, a political analyst from the Counter Extremism Project, a nonprofit that researches mostly Islamist extremism, told DW.

German Foreign Minister Baerbock visits West Bank, Tel Aviv

Germany's stance on the Israel-Hamas war

The German government has repeatedly stressed its special relationship with Israel, having declared Israel's security its own "reason of state."

Baerbock has repeatedly condemned Hamas' attack. She has also called out the increasing violence of extremist Jewish Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Her comments that there should be "no expulsion from Gaza, no occupation, or territorial reduction of Gaza" have been met with the action of increased humanitarian aid for the Palestinian territories. An additional €38 million ($41.2 million) brings German aid to €160 million for this year.

That has not satisfied everyone, especially among Palestinians.

"Not calling for an end to the war, supporting Israel with weapons, encourages it to continue its aggression against our people in Gaza," Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, said in a statement following Baerbock's visit to the West Bank.

In early 2023, Germany and Israel agreed on the delivery of three more German submarines.

The issue of a humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip is a sensitive one for German diplomacy. Germany has stayed away from calls for a ceasefire, which would "only benefit the Hamas terrorists who can strengthen," Michael Roth, who chairs the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told public broadcaster ZDF.

The German position has favored "humanitarian pauses" instead, while it is important that "Israel manages to defeat Hamas," Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said.

Families of hostages held by Hamas call on EU to help

Where Germany fits in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are particularly interesting diplomacy partners for Baerbock, as they hold potential sway over the fate of the hostages. Hamas' political leadership operates out of Qatar, which has played a role in the country's ability to negotiate a limited hostage release.

Yet Germany's clout is limited. "The German government can only make urgent appeals," Schindler said. "But as a country, we naturally don't have the same influence in this conflict as the US, for example."

It is against this backdrop that Germany hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Berlin last Friday. He has described the Hamas terrorists as "liberators."

Observers were watching closely for any repeat of last year's embarrassing moment for Scholz, when he hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Scholz was heavily criticized for his slow reaction to Abbas' claim that Palestinians have suffered "50 holocausts" at the hands of Israel.

What will happen to Gaza after the Israel-Hamas conflict?

Germany for a two-state solution

Whenever Israel's campaign against Hamas ends, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will retake full responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip "for an indefinite period." It is unclear, however, what that might look like.

Baerbock is still striving for the long-contested idea of a two-state solution, as envisioned by the Oslo Accords from 30 years ago. While in Tel Aviv, she said it is the "only sustainable model that can guarantee lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians."

While most people involved in the conflict agree that such a scenario remains a "distant goal," Schindler added, rhetorically, "What other solution is there apart from the two-state solution?"

Schindler's view that Netanyahu wants to eradicate Hamas and otherwise return to the pre-war status quo is "not a sustainable solution."

Although Hamas will have been weakened physically, Schindler said its ideology could live on, leaving Israel — and its allies like Germany — no option but to keep working towards this long-term goal.

This article was originally written in German.

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