The lack of consensus among EU member states over the tragedy in Gaza continues as deaths, displacement increases and humanitarian crisis worsens. Leaked plan confirms Egyptian fears of Israeli attempts to permanently displace the population of Gaza in the Sinai desert.
After a diplomatic meltdown following the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, the EU remains divided over its position on Gaza as the humanitarian crisis worsens, death toll and displacement increase and protests and calls for a ceasefire spread across the globe. Commissioner-General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Philippe Lazzarini addressed the UN Security Council Meeting on 30 Oct warning that “An immediate humanitarian cease-fire has become a matter of life and death for millions,” and stating: “The horrific attacks by Hamas in Israel on 7 October were shocking. The relentless bombardments by the Israeli Forces of the Gaza Strip are shocking. The level of destruction is unprecedented, the human tragedy unfolding under our watch is unbearable. One million people, half the population of Gaza, were pushed from the north of the Gaza Strip towards the south in three weeks. The south, however, has not been spared from bombardment, with significant numbers killed. I have said many times, and I will say it again no place is safe in Gaza”. The Commissioner-General for the UN agency said that the agency had lost 64 staff members in Israeli bombardments on Gaza by 30 October and was hosting more than 670,000 displaced in their facilities. He further pointed out: “Nearly 70 per cent of those reported killed are children and women. Save the Children reported yesterday that nearly 3,200 children were killed in Gaza in just three weeks. This surpasses the number of children killed annually across the world’s conflict zones since 2019”. By 5 October, after nearly a month of Israeli bombardments, the death toll in Gaza had reached 9,770 with at least least 4,008 children according to the Palestinian health ministry. By 7 November the civilian death toll in Gaza had reached 10,000 people and by 6 November UNRWA had lost 89 staff members.
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 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. On 26 October, the 27 EU member states agreed on a call for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” of the Israeli shelling of Gaza to allow food, water and medical supplies to reach civilians. However, the agreement was reached only after what one diplomat defined as a week of “difficult discussions”. In the final wording, the Council “expresses its gravest concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza and calls for continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses”. Reportedly, three member states “including Israel’s close ally Germany” favoured the phrase “windows” and felt an earlier version involving the phrase “humanitarian pause” suggested a permanent ceasefire and would undermine Israel’s right to self-defense. Spain currently holding the presidency of the Council had urged the mentioning of a “ceasefire” but gave it up for other concessions in the final text including consensus on a peace conference on a two-state solution in the formal declaration. However, the 27 member-state call for an “international peace conference” so far leaves more questions than answers. According to POLITICO: “A spokesperson for the Israeli mission to the EU said they are “not in a position to say if we would attend or not because we don’t know yet what it would actually mean,” adding that so far, no European officials had reached out on the initiative. The Palestinian mission to the EU did not immediately respond to a request for comment”. Diplomats speaking privately, because the subject is so sensitive, told POLITICO “that this flailing around in search of sensible things to say shows how EU leaders are simply “navel gazing” and playing to domestic audiences enflamed by conflict, rather than trying seriously to deliver peace”. On 6 October, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo, stated: “If you bomb an entire refugee camp with the intention of eliminating a terrorist, I don’t think it’s proportionate”.
According to EURACTIV: “The wrangling over the exact phrasing comes as EU member states have always been traditionally more split between more pro-Palestinian members such as Ireland and Spain, and staunch backers of Israel including Germany and Austria”. Prior to the talks, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer stated: “All the fantasies of truces, ceasefires, etc. have the effect of strengthening Hamas in its determination to continue its action and perpetuate this terrible terror”. His German counterpart, Olaf Scholz expressed confidence in the Israeli army that “will follow the rules that come from international law”. Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach (head of government) Leo Varadkar emphasized the need: “for the killing and the violence to stop so that humanitarian aid can get into Gaza, where innocent Palestinian people are suffering, and also to allow us to get EU citizens out”. Spain’s acting minister of social rights, Ione Belarra, has called for economic sanctions against Israel and the suspension of diplomatic relations and acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez has expressed support for UN Secretary General, António Guterres amid Israeli demands for his resignation and threats to refuse visas for UN representatives.
Meanwhile, on 30 October, WikiLeaks announced: “A week after the Hamas attack, Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence issued a secret ten-page document outlining the expulsion of the Palestinian population of Gaza to northern Sinai, in Egypt”. The plan reportedly consists of several elements including instructing Palestinian civilians to evacate north Gaza ahead of land operations; Sequential land operations from north to south Gaza; Routes across Rafah to be left clear; Establishing tent cities in northern Sinai and construct cities to resettle Palestinians in Egypt. Linking to the document, WikiLeaks state: “The document has been verified by an official from the Ministry of Intelligence, according to the Hebrew website Mekomit which originally published the document. Mekomit noted that documents from the Ministry of Intelligence are advisory and not binding on the executive”. The US outlet ABC news reports: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office played down the report compiled by the Intelligence Ministry as a hypothetical exercise — a “concept paper.”
Nonetheless, the report added to long-standing fears in Egypt and other countries in the region that Israel may want to further displace Palestinians, into Egypt but also adding to the refugee populations established in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and beyond since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The countries also face significant pressure from their populations, with protests continuing. For the EU, concerns about onward movement should displacement take place continues to feature in its relationship with Egypt in particular.
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