The Israeli government has recalled its ambassador in Madrid and said it will be reprimanding Spain’s top diplomat in Tel Aviv after the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said he had “genuine doubts” about whether Israel was complying with international humanitarian law in its offensive in Gaza.
Sánchez’s latest remarks came a week after he caused a diplomatic spat by using a visit to Israel to urge it to rethink its operations in Gaza, claiming its response to Hamas’s atrocitieson 7 October could not “imply the deaths of innocent civilians, including thousands of children”.
Speaking to Spain’s state broadcaster, TVE, on Thursday morning, Sánchez repeated his condemnation of Hamas’s attacks but said “friendly countries really have to be able to tell each other things”.
“We’ve said from the very beginning that what Hamas did in Israel is absolutely atrocious and abominable,” he said, adding that he had watched 20 minutes of “very tough” footage of the attacks during last week’s meeting with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We’ve also always shown our public commitment to Hamas having to free all the hostages they hold immediately and without any conditions whatsoever,” Sánchez said.
“But we have to tell Israel, with the same conviction, that its actions must be based on international humanitarian law. But with the images we’re seeing and the growing number of people – especially boys and girls – who are being killed, I have genuine doubts that they’re complying with international humanitarian law.”
The Spanish leader said a political solution to the crisis required “the recognition of the Palestinian state”, adding: “It’s in Europe’s interest to address this issue out of moral conviction because what we are seeing in Gaza is not acceptable.”
Spain has already indicated it could be willing to unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state if other EU members fail to do so collectively.
His words met with a furious response from the Israeli government. Netanyahu said he had instructed his foreign minister, Eli Cohen, to call in Spain’s ambassador for a reprimand “after the shameful statement by the Spanish prime minister”. He also noted that the comments had come on a day when Hamas gunmen murdered three people and injured 13 others in East Jerusalem.
Cohen said Sánchez’s “outrageous words” had prompted him to call the Israeli ambassador in Madrid to return for consultations.
He added: “Israel acts and will continue to act according to international law and we will continue the war until the release of all the abductees and the elimination of Hamas in Gaza.”
During last week’s joint visit to the region with Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, Sánchez said the number of dead Palestinians was “truly unbearable” and reiterated that the creation of a Palestinian state remained the best way to bring peace and security to the region. De Croo said Israel’s military operation needed to respect international humanitarian law, adding: “The killing of civilians needs to stop.”
The pair’s comments led the Israeli foreign ministry to accuse them of “giving support to terrorism” and to summon the ambassadors of both countries.
Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, called the Israeli government’s comments “false, misplaced and unacceptable”.
Sánchez also dismissed the criticism, saying: “Condemning the vile terrorist attacks of a terrorist group like Hamas, and at the same condemning the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians in Gaza, is not a question of political parties nor of ideology, it is a question of being humane.”
Relations between Spain and Israel have been fraught over recent weeks after some far-left members of Sánchez’s previous cabinet criticised Israel’s reaction to the terrorist atrocities, suggesting it was committing war crimes in Gaza and calling for Netanyahu to be brought before the international criminal court.
Israel’s embassy in Madrid described the remarks as “deeply immoral” and accused some Spanish MPs of aligning themselves with “Isis-style terrorism”.
Spain responded with its own strongly worded statement that accused the Israeli embassy of “spreading falsehoods” about some cabinet members.
“In a full democracy, such as Spain, any political leader can freely express their positions as the representative of a political party,” the statement from the foreign ministry said.
“In any case, the Spanish government’s position on the terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas is clear: unequivocal condemnation; demands for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages, and the recognition of Israel to defend itself within the limits set by international law and international humanitarian law.”
At least 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage when Hamas fighters crossed the border from Gaza on 7 October, according to Israeli figures. According to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, about 15,000 people, 40% of them children, have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory strikes.