Israel Gaza: EU leaders set to back humanitarian pauses

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The EU has struggled to present a united front on the war, and there has been criticism of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L)
By Sofia Bettiza
BBC News, Brussels

EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday for a summit overshadowed by Hamas’s war with Israel and the EU’s failure to project a united front.

For weeks, the European Union’s stance on the war has been clouded with mixed messages, diplomatic gaffes and conflicting national views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But after days of disagreement, EU leaders aim to project a united front.

They are expected to back a call for humanitarian pauses in the fighting.

European Council President Charles Michel says the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza is of grave concern and the leaders are keen to facilitate access to food, water, medical care, fuel and shelter.

They hope that will create safer conditions for the release of more than 200 hostages seized by Hamas gunmen during their 7 October attack. Many of those held captive are European dual nationals, including citizens from Germany, France, Portugal and the Netherlands.

EU member states hold sharply differing views and it all makes for a very confusing picture.

Some have reservations about calling for a pause in the fighting and argue it could be seen as limiting Israel’s right to self-defence.

Germany and other countries do not support the idea of one, singular humanitarian pause, because that would be too close to the concept of a ceasefire, when Israel has the right to defend itself from attack.

What was needed instead were shorter breaks in the fighting, an EU diplomat told the BBC. “A pause means both actors stop for good, whereas pauses is temporary. It’s short intervals for a few hours, to get aid,” they said.

Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic have taken strong stances of supporting Israel. Spain and Ireland are more attuned with the Palestinian cause.

Several European leaders have been on a diplomatic tour of the Middle East. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have all had talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Czech prime minister Petr Fiala visited Israel on Wednesday.

The French president ended a Middle East trip with talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on Wednesday

Those differing views extend to the EU’s executive too.

The EU is the largest donor to the Palestinians, so when Oliver Varhelyi, Hungary’s European Commissioner responsible for policy towards neighbouring countries, announced after the Hamas attack that all payments were being suspended and all new budget proposals postponed, it immediately sent alarm bells ring at aid agencies.

The EC then rushed out a statement saying €691m (£600m) of aid would not be stopped but put under review, and later said it would treble aid for Palestinians.

And when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to Israel with the president of the European Parliament, she drew criticism for backing Israel’s right to defend itself without stressing that it should stick to international humanitarian law. There seemed to be no effort to connect with the Palestinian Authority.

However, an EU diplomat told journalists that not everything Ms von der Leyen said in Israel was posted on social media. “If you want to be effective, you don’t do megaphone diplomacy,” the diplomat said. “The Israeli government listens to us if we raise something behind closed doors.”

In a highly unusual move, more than 800 EU staff and diplomats signed an open letter criticising her “uncontrolled” support of Israel. They complained of the Commission’s “double standards”, pointing out that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine was seen as an act of terror, while Israel’s blockade of Gaza was “completely ignored”.

“The EU’s response has been rather unfortunate and very confusing,” James Moran from the Centre for European Policy Studies told the BBC.

“In the past, the EU approach to conflicts in the Middle East had generally managed to come out with an even-handed position. For example, in 2014 calls for a ceasefire were pretty quickly made.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is among the EU leaders who have visited Israel this month

The EU doesn’t have an army, ships, or planes – but it has played an important diplomatic role in the Middle East.

When it was made up of just nine members in 1980, it issued the ground-breaking Venice Declaration recognising the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.

Fast forward to 2023, the EU represents 27 countries with “fundamentally opposing views on the Middle East”, an EU diplomat told the BBC.

That became clear during an EU foreign ministers meeting earlier this week, where German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock reportedly argued against a humanitarian ceasefire because Hamas was still firing rockets at Israel.

As a result the EU has so far failed to agree on what kind of pause there should be.

More on Israel-Gaza war

Follow live: Latest updates

Explained: What is happening in Israel and Gaza, and why now?

History behind the story: The Israel-Palestinian conflict

Hostages: Who are the hostages taken by Hamas from Israel?

Bowen: Israelis and Palestinians fear worst is yet to come

Another crucial element is that the EU doesn’t want to deviate from the US line. The German position on backing short humanitarian pauses to allow aid in is similar to that advocated by the Americans.

“There’s a great need to maintain transatlantic solidarity on Ukraine,” says James Moran. “EU-US cooperation has been very important in helping Ukrainians defend themselves from Russia’s invasion.”

But EU diplomats point out that the war in Ukraine is not remotely comparable to what is happening in the Middle East.

“It was a war on our doorstep, and there was a clear enemy,” a spokesperson for the European Parliament told the BBC. “Nobody ever questioned whether it was right for the EU to help Ukraine arm itself. It was an epochal change.”

Since the beginning of Russia’s aggression, EU support has reached €82.6bn.

That level of unity is missing in the Hamas-Israel war: “A lack of a single voice is the EU’s achilles heel,” the EU diplomat says.

Those differences are likely to resurface when the 27 EU leaders meet behind closed doors in Brussels on Thursday afternoon.

The EU was created as a peace project after the devastation caused by World War Two and does have the potential to be a peace broker.

But in reality no European country is powerful enough to stand alone as a major player; and together they are too divided.

“After a long period of lack of engagement with the Middle East, we can’t somehow magically wake up and turn around the conflict there,” a diplomat told the BBC.

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