As 1,6 million people have been displaced, more than 11,000 have been killed and a severe humanitarian crisis unfolds in Gaza, EU lacks consensus and relevance with member states providing individual and incoherent messaging.
According to a situation report published by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on 14 November: “over 11,078 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip since 7 October; two thirds of them are reportedly children and women. Due to the collapse in MoH [Ministry of Health] services and communications in the north, casualty data has not been updated for the last three days”. The UN Agency adds: “102 UNRWA colleagues have been killed since the beginning of the hostilities. This is the highest number of United Nations aid workers killed in a conflict in the history of the United Nations”. On 13 November, the UN agencies across the globe honoured their dead colleagues. Further, at least 42 media workers and at least 198 medical staff has also lost their lives. Almost 1.6 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants have been internally displaced and UN agencies and the Red Cross have warned of a worsening “humanitarian disaster” with shortages of food, fuel, drinking water and medicines and the majority of health facilities not functioning due to damage from attacks and the Israeli blockade of the strip. On 14 November, UN General Secretary António Guterres stated: “I am deeply disturbed by the horrible situation and dramatic loss of life in several hospitals in Gaza. In the name of humanity, I call for an immediate humanitarian cease fire”. With weather worsening and thousands of civilians left without shelter UNRWA warns that “The spread of cholera in these conditions would be absolutely devastating”. In a statement published 15 November UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths states: “As the carnage in Gaza reaches new levels of horror every day, the world continues to watch in shock as hospitals come under fire, premature babies die, and an entire population is deprived of the basic means of survival. This cannot be allowed to continue”.
The European Commission building that initially after 7 October featured the Israeli flag was illuminated with a massive projection of protest messages including “Ceasefire Now” and “Stop the War on Children” on 12 November. Save the Children Europe Director, Willy Bergogné expressed the organisation’s support for the message: “Children are always the first to suffer in any conflict – and the stories continuing to come from Gaza are the stuff of nightmares. If we don’t act now, history will judge us all. All children in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel should be protected. Stop the war on children”. However, more than one month of diplomatic melt-down and lack of consensus across the EU and its member states seemingly continues. Commenting on the split among EU members states on the recent UN ceasefire resolution Martin Konečný, director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP) stated: “It is these divisions which make it hard for the EU to take a strong, united common position”, adding: “They can agree on a position on paper, but it’s kind of a minimum common denominator, and it doesn’t allow the EU to very forcefully push for something”.
Ahead of a meeting between EU member states 27 foreign ministers on 13 November, Bloomberg predicted the obvious and non-consequential compromise: “The bloc’s foreign ministers meeting in Brussels today will likely continue trying to balance support for Israel’s right to defend itself with calls for protecting civilians”. Deutsche Welle summarized the meeting, stating: “Divisions were increasingly clear among the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday as they sought a common position on Israel’s intensifying military operations in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attacks. The EU, which has struggled to speak with one voice on the politically divisive Israeli-Palestinian question, issued a fresh joint statement on Sunday evening”. According to the German outlet: “The new joint EU statement came after President Emmanuel Macron on Friday added France to the small list of EU countries — Spain, Belgium and Ireland — calling for a total cease-fire, prompting sharp rebukes from Israel. Other European countries like Germany, which has closely backed Israel ever since the Hamas October 7 attacks, have declined to endorse a cease-fire, arguing it could benefit Hamas and undermine Israel’s right to self-defense”. The statement by the High Representative Josep Borrell on behalf of the European Union stopped short of urging a ceasefire instead referring to “immediate pauses in hostilities and the establishment of humanitarian corridors, including through increased capacity at border crossings and through a dedicated maritime route – the latter could become complicated as port infrastructure in the Palestinian enclave has been destroyed. Meanwhile The statement offered little clarity but revealed some ambivalence in relation to EUs position on the extremely dire situation in hospitals in Gaza currently under attack: “The EU condemns the use of hospitals and civilians as human shields by Hamas. Civilians must be allowed to leave the combat zone. These hostilities are severely impacting hospitals and taking a horrific toll on civilians and medical staff. The EU emphasizes that international humanitarian law stipulates that hospitals, medical supplies and civilians inside hospitals must be protected. Hospitals must also be supplied immediately with the most urgent medical supplies and patients that require urgent medical care need to be evacuated safely. In this context, we urge Israel to exercise maximum restraint to ensure the protection of civilians”.
On 14 November, Josep Borrell currently visiting the region summarised the outcome of the Foreign Affairs Council in “The three yes and the three no” stating: “First, no to any forced displacement of the Palestinian people out of Gaza to other countries. Second, the territory of Gaza cannot be reduced and there should be no permanent reoccupation of Gaza by Israeli Defense Forces, nor a return of Hamas to Gaza. Third, Gaza cannot be dissociated from the rest of the Palestinian issue: the solution for Gaza has to be framed within the solution to the Palestinian problem as a whole. And the three “yes” are about the actors to engage in a solution. First, a Palestinian Authority should rule Gaza, whose nature, role and legitimacy has to be defined by the UN Security Council. But this authority will for sure need to be supported. And this is the second yes to a stronger involvement of the Arab countries. Currently, the Arab states do not want to talk about the “day after”, because they are focused on the tragedy that is unfolding today. But there will be no solution without a strong commitment from them, and not only a financial one. It not only about physical reconstruction but about contributing politically to Palestinian state-building. The third yes is a greater commitment from the EU in the region”. Meanwhile, Israeli President Isaac Herzog suggests that “very strong force” may need to remain in Gaza an idea also floated by other Israeli officials, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a role for the Palestinian Authority in the governing of the strip, and through quiet diplomacy the Israeli government has pushed for expelling hundreds of thousands of Gaza’s population to Egypt. At the same time 57 Arab and Muslim leaders meeting in the Saudi capital of Riyadh blamed the West for the tragedy in Gaza pointing to hypocrisy, double standards and a failure to understand the region.
EU Observer columnist, and independent EU analyst and commentator, Shada Islam argues that with the EU “failing on Israel-Gaza, so it’s now up to member states”. However, the latest developments at member state level illustrate division rather than coherence. After condemning the attack by Hamas on 7 October, French President Emmanuel Macron also denounced the Israeli bombings of civilians, stating: “These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop”. However, in the face of harsh Israeli reactions reportedly went into “diplomatic overdrive” of damage control. German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz says Israel is acting in accordance with international law in defending itself against Hamas and stated “The accusations being made against Israel are absurd”. According to a document seen by POLITICO Germany has floated that the United Nations could take control in Gaza once the Israel-Hamas war is over. The idea was met with serious skepticism by EU diplomats and categorically rejected by both Palestinian and Israeli officials. On 16 November, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated: “Belgian government has shown that it is possible for individual EU governments to stick to principles and not hide behind a lack of consensus at the EU level. In a series of public statements, senior figures in the Belgian government, including Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Deputy Prime Minister Petra De Sutter, Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, and Development Minister Caroline Gennez, not only condemned the heinous October 7 killings by Palestinian armed groups, but also questioned the legality of some Israeli airstrikes, condemned its collective punishment of the Palestinian population, and called for targeted sanctions and accountability for those responsible”. A confidential memo from the Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv drafted by the Dutch defense attaché reportedly states Israel is deliberately using “disproportionate force” in Gaza and targeting “civilian infrastructure” in an attempt to limit its own losses and “showcase credible military force to show Iran and its proxies [such as Hezbollah] that they will stop at nothing”. According to POLITICO the memo also pointed out that Israel’s approach violates “international treaties and laws of war” and increases the chance of regional escalation as well as accusing the Dutch government of being aware of Israel’s “ruthless approach,” yet failing to condemn it. While Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has urged Israel to “show that what they are doing is also proportionate,” he has not publicly called for a cease-fire. On 27 October, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in Gaza with 120 votes in favour, 14 against and 45 abstentions. The vote illustrated the divisions across the EU member states with Austria, Croatia and Hungary among the countries voting against the resolution, a number of member states including Germany, the Netherlands and Italy abstaining and others including France, Spain and Belgium voting in favour.
For further information:
- ECRE, EU External Partners: EU Divided Over Gaza as Humanitarian Crisis, Displacement and Death Toll Increases, Leaked Document Reveals Israeli Plan for Permanent Displacement of the Strip Population in the Egyptian Sinai Desert, November 2023
- ECRE, EU External Partners: With More Than Half of Gaza’s Population Displaced EU Struggles for Consensus and Focuses on Prevention of Arrivals Through a Deal with Egypt, October 2023