As senior UN officials denounce the “Unparalleled and Unprecedented” killing of civilians including thousands of children and the humanitarian situation worsens all hopes are on a temporary truce agreement between Israel and Hamas. EU remains largely irrelevant in terms of solutions to the war but seeks new deals to prevent access to Europe for potential refugees.
By 20 November, a total of 13,000 civilians had been confirmed killed in Gaza since 7 October according to Palestinian health authorities in the strip – regarded reliable by UN agencies. However, other sources set the number significantly higher. UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell stated on 22 November: “More than 5,300 Palestinian children have been reportedly killed in just 46 days – that is over 115 a day, every day, for weeks and weeks. Based on these figures, children account for forty per cent of the deaths in Gaza. This is unprecedented. In other words, today, the Gaza Strip is the most dangerous place in the world to be a child” adding: “We are also receiving reports that more than 1,200 children remain under the rubble of bombed out buildings or are otherwise unaccounted for”. UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out that: “in all the reports issued during his tenure, on children in conflict, it was clear that the current war in Gaza has seen thousands of child deaths – compared with hundreds, in conflicts in Yemen and Syria” and stating: “We are witnessing a killing of civilians that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any conflict since I have been Secretary-General”. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reports that 1.7 million out of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now displaced. Further, more than half of the buildings in Northern Gaza have been damaged, all key sanitation services in Gaza have ceased operating raising alarm of gastrointestinal and infectious diseases including cholera, the World Food Programme (WFP) has warned of widespread hunger as food systems collapse and the health system largely collapsed.
On 23 November, mediators in Qatar confirmed that Israel and Hamas would start a four-day truce on the morning of 24 November 7 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) with a first group of Israeli women and child hostages released later in the day. The agreement reportedly involves a comprehensive ceasefire in north and south Gaza, humanitarian aid for civilians in the strip as well as Israeli hostages released in exchange of prisoners from Israeli jails. On the morning of 24 November 24, the truce seemingly held with no significant combat operations reported. However, media reported around noon of several Palestinians shot and two killed by Israeli forces while attempting to return to Northern Gaza.
The EU that has been split on a UN resolution calling for an immediate and sustained ‘humanitarian truce’ and over the semantics of joint messaging now struggle for consensus on how to take advantage of the window for humanitarian aid in Gaza created by others. On 21 November POLITICO, reported: “The EU’s fight over aid for Palestinians — of which the bloc is the largest donor — is going into Round 2 today adding “A large number of commissioners are voicing serious concerns about Neighborhood and Enlargement chief Olivér Várhelyi’s plan to impose additional conditions on that aid”. The Hungarian Commissioner caused major controversy when he on his own initiative announced a freeze all Palestinian aid in the initial phase after the 7 October attack – the diplomatic melt-down ended in a “review” of the EU’s aid. POLITICO writes: “the teams of 11 commissioners questioned the additional conditions ahead of today’s meeting. Those raising concerns include the offices of Borrell, Financial Services Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn and International Partnerships Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen”. The outlet adds: “How, some of those Commission officials asked, can the EU justify imposing additional hurdles if the review found no problems with the aid to begin with? Another official warned that any future development aid would become almost impossible under the proposed additional conditions and argued the scope of the audit was not to impose extra conditions on future funding, but to review the current money flows”. Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, stated on 21 November: “The review found no indications of EU money having directly or indirectly benefitted the terrorist organisation Hamas”. A statement by Commission President von der Leyen on the agreement between Israel and Hamas on the release of hostages and a pause in hostilities, published on 22 November is mainly dedicated to welcoming the release of Israeli hostages but adds: “The European Commission will do its utmost to use this pause for a humanitarian surge to Gaza. I have asked Commissioner Janez Lenarčič to upscale further shipments to Gaza as quickly as possible to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza”. Speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on the same day, Lenarčič Commissioner for Crisis Management said the bloc “hoped” the new deal would “allow for the substantial surge in humanitarian aid delivery into and within Gaza”, adding: “And we certainly hope that this will not be a one-off”.
EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell recently summarised his challenges, saying: “Until now there have been different positions from the leaders on how Israel is exercising its right to self-defence. When there is no common position, I as a High Representative cannot represent that position. I cannot represent it but I must continue to work to reach that common position”. None the less Borrell, visited the Middle East for “high-level exchanges in Israel, Palestine, Bahrain, Qatar & Jordan”, stating on 20 November that he had debriefed EU ministers about “main takeaways” which were limited to broad statements of: “absolute urgency, particularly due to the dramatic humanitarian crisis in Gaza & need to release hostages” and “shared objective to work towards a lasting peace”. Reportedly, “Borrell faces social media backlash after a viral Al Jazeera Arabic interview. He labels Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel a war crime, but when questioned about Israel’s attacks on Gaza, he responds, ‘I’m not a lawyer”. Meanwhile, Commission president von der Leyen stated on 18 November after meetings with Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi: “We agree on the principle of no forced displacement of Palestinians”. This common ground is not surprising as Egypt fears and rejects potential Israeli plans of permanently expelling Gazans to the Sinai desert and EU on its side is working to prevent potential arrivals to Europe in such a scenario. Von der Leyen went on to say: “To strengthen our relations we are working together on a strategic, comprehensive partnership that is mutually beneficial. It would build on the longstanding relations between the EU and Egypt and take forward the Partnership Priorities agreed together last year”. In October 2022, EU signed an agreement with Egypt for the first phase of an 80 million-euro border management programme. Already on 10 October, referencing the controversial MoU signed between EU and Tunisia and the events in Gaza, Vice-president of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas stated: “After this weekend’s events, the need to engage with Egypt is even more pressing” adding: “We are also stepping up now in this same area of cooperation with partners with Egypt. We will work with Egypt in the same vein”.
On 16 November, Statewatch wrote: “The European Commission wants to agree “new anti-smuggling operational partnerships” with Tunisia and Egypt before the end of the year”. According to the outlet: “The plan for new “partnerships” is referred to in a newly-revealed annex (pdf) of a letter from European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, that was sent to the European Council prior to its meeting in October and published by Statewatch. The annex is short on details but: “says that the agreements with Tunisia and Egypt should build on the anti-smuggling partnerships “in place with Morocco, Niger and the Western Balkans, with the support of Europol and Eurojust,” and that they should include “joint operational teams with prosecutors and law enforcement authorities of Member States and partners”. On 21 November, investigative journalist Sara Crete wrote: “The EU is discussing with Egypt an expensive shopping list worth €57m. Ongoing talks with the Egyptian defence & foreign ministries for new boats, thermal cameras, and satellite geolocation systems to support a stronger presence on Egypt’s southern border with Sudan”.
For further information:
- ECRE, EU External Partners: As 1.6 million Have Been Internally Displaced and the Humanitarian Crisis in the Gaza Strip is Spiralling Out of Control, EU Remains Divided and Irrelevant, November 2023
- 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