The letter is the first instance of officials in allied nations across the Atlantic coming together to openly criticize their governments over the war, say current and former officials who are organizing or supporting the effort.
The officials say that it is their duty as civil servants to help improve policy and to work in their nations’ interests, and that they are speaking up because they believe their governments need to change direction on the war. The signers say they have raised concerns through internal channels but have been ignored.
“Our governments’ current policies weaken their moral standing and undermine their ability to stand up for freedom, justice and human rights globally,” the letter says, according to a copy obtained Thursday by The New York Times. It adds that “there is a plausible risk that our governments’ policies are contributing to grave violations of international humanitarian law, war crimes and even ethnic cleansing or genocide.”
The Israeli military launched a bombing and ground campaign in Gaza after Hamas fighters invaded Israel on October 7 and killed about 1,200 people while abducting about 240, Israeli officials said. More than 27,000 people in Gaza have been killed and nearly 2 million have been displaced since Israel’s offensive began, according to the health ministry in Gaza and United Nations officials.
The document does not include the names of signers because they fear reprisal, said one organizer, an official who has worked in the State Department for more than two decades. But about 800 current officials have given approval to the letter as it has quietly circulated among employees at the national level in multiple countries, the official said.
The effort reveals the extent to which pro-Israel policies among American, British and European leaders have stirred dissent among civil servants, including many who carry out the foreign policies of their governments.
About 80 of the signers are from US agencies, with the biggest group being from the State Department, one organizer said. The governing authority most represented among the signers is the collective EU institutions, followed by the Netherlands and the United States.
National-level officials from eight other member nations of Nato, as well as Sweden and Switzerland, have approved the letter, said another person familiar with the letter. Most of those supporters work in the foreign ministries of those nations.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“The political decision-making of Western governments and institutions” over the war “has created unprecedented tensions with the expertise and duty that apolitical civil servants bring to bear,” said Josh Paul, who worked in the State Department bureau that oversees arms transfers but who resigned in October over the Biden administration’s support of Israel’s military campaign. Paul said he knew the organizers of the letter.
“One-sided support for Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, and a blindness to Palestinian humanity, is both a moral failure and, for the harm it does to Western interests around the globe, a policy failure,” he said.
Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria who resigned in 2014 over the Obama administration’s Syria policy, said he had never seen a cross-border dissent letter like this new one in three decades of working at the State Department.
He added that some diplomats had learned a lesson from the run-up to the Iraq War begun by President George W. Bush: that keeping quiet about objections to misguided policies or not going public with them when the stakes are high could contribute to a disastrous outcome.
“When war is looming that is very problematic on many levels, I can see why people are speaking out,” he said.
US officials released a few similar letters and dissenting messages last fall. In November, more than 500 employees of about 40 US government agencies sent a letter to President Joe Biden criticizing his policies on the war. In that letter, the officials also did not reveal their names.
More than 1,000 employees of the United States Agency for International Development released an open letter along the same lines. And dozens of State Department officials have sent at least three internal dissent cables to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Across the Atlantic, dissent among European officials has also broken through in the months since Israel’s military response in Gaza after the attack October 7.
In the EU, which maintains a joint diplomatic corps known as the European External Action Service, as well as agencies dealing with humanitarian aid and development, hundreds of officials have signed at least two separate letters of dissent to the bloc’s leadership. Unlike the United States, the EU does not maintain “dissent channels” for officials to formally register their disagreement with policy.
The 27 EU countries and their joint institutions have taken diverging stances on the war, but a majority of governments are largely pro-Israel.
Only a handful of EU nations — prominently, Ireland, Spain and Belgium — have consistently called on their partners and the union to moderate support for Israel, push for a cease-fire and focus on Palestinians’ suffering.
Berber van der Woude, a former Dutch diplomat, said she wanted to speak out on behalf of the active civil servants who had signed the letter anonymously because they feared retribution for dissenting.
Van der Woude, a conflict and peacekeeping expert who had served in the Dutch Foreign Ministry, including in its mission in Ramallah, in the West Bank, resigned in 2022 to protest her government’s policy. She has since been a prominent pro-Palestinian voice in the Netherlands.
Van der Woude said that dissent in situations like the Israel-Hamas conflict, even among the ranks of civil servants who tend to work behind the scenes and take political direction from elected governments, was justified if the policies being adopted were seen as harmful.
“Being a civil servant doesn’t absolve you from your responsibility to keep on thinking,” she said. “When the system produces perverse decisions or actions, we have a responsibility to stop it. It’s not as simple as ‘Shut up and do what you’re told’; we’re also paid to think.”