EU prepares position paper on Israel - Hamas war amid extended humanitarian pause

EU prepares position paper on Israel - Hamas war amid extended humanitarian pause
9 children and 2 mothers were released on Monday

The high-level meeting on Monday in Barcelona of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) ended without any joint statement agreed by the foreign ministers from the EU and the Arab-Muslim countries.

The two co-chairs, Josep Borrell, the High Representative for EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Nasser Kamel, Secretary General of the UfM, were supposed to issue a statement but this has not been done yet.

Although some EU participants were inclined to highlight the common ground relating to the need for more humanitarian aid to Gaza and finding a pathway to a political solution based on two-states, there were also fundamental disagreements about the responsibility for the war and the civilian casualties among the civilian Palestinian population.

The meeting was originally planned to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the UfM which was established in 2008 with a secretariat in Barcelona. The UfM is an inter-governmental organisation that promotes cooperation and dialogue in the Euro-Mediterranean region. The EU holds the role of Co-Chair alongside Jordan.

This year the meeting took place against the background of the Israel – Hamas war and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip which became the only points of the agenda. The meeting gathered a record number of foreign ministers and high-level participants but Israel did not attend it. High Representative Josep Borrel regretted Israel’s absence.

“Israel has its place in the Union for the Mediterranean, and I sincerely hope that we will have Israel in these meetings again in the future,” he said.

Israel which usually participates in the meetings claimed that the change of the agenda had been done without consulting it. “This undermines the purpose of the UfM and carries the risk of transforming it into another international forum in which Arab states are bashing Israel,” a statement from the Israeli mission to the EU said.

Israel missed an opportunity for dialogue but was perhaps right that constructive dialogue is difficult with the Jordanian deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Ayman al-Safadi, who co-chaired the meeting.

Blunt discussion on root causes

The minister said that he had come to the meeting for an open and blunt discussion. In his speech at the concluding press conference, he called Israel’s war against Hamas “blatant aggression” and in the realm of the legal definition of genocide.

While joining others in condemning the “killings of civilians on 7 October”, he did not mention Hamas by name and put all blame on Israel for the failure to implement the two-state solution. He agreed with his co-chair, the EU High Representative, that the conflict is not religious and that implementing the two-state solution means an end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

Josep Borrell repeated the well-known EU position on Israel’s right to self-defense in accordance with international and humanitarian law and recalled that it was Hamas surprise terrorist attack which has led to the huge humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. “But one horror cannot justify another horror.  International humanitarian law applies to everyone, at all times, and without exception.”

Today we say that Israel has to obey international law, he stressed, and referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) who has started an investigation of alleged war crimes but not drawn any conclusions. Borrell called for an extension of the humanitarian pause to avoid more deaths, enable hostage releases and the increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic”, said Janez Lenarcic, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, at a discussion about ‘Humanitarian assistance in troubled time’ on Tuesday (28 November) at Press Club Brussels Europe. “A pause in the fighting helps but the bottle necks are the insufficient entry points and the screening of the aid (to prevent smuggling of weapons and diverting the aid to Hamas).”

The four-days pause which started last Friday and ended on Monday has been extended for two more days for the release of 10 more hostages per day in return for Palestinian security prisoners in Israel. So far Hamas has released 51 Israelis and a number of foreign workers but there are still up to 93 women and children in Hamas captivity besides other hostages.

The role of the Palestinian Authority

In principle the pause can be extended until all hostages have been released in similar prisoner exchanges. Hamas has an interest in extending the pause until international pressure on Israel will force it to agree to a permanent cease-fire. It will probably also keep some of the hostages as human shields for next round of fighting if the pause is not extended.

According to Borrell, the pause should be “extended to make it sustainable and long-lasting while working for a political solution”. The solution he has in mind is the two-state solution which excludes any “re-occupation of Gaza by Israel and any return of Hamas to Gaza”. To prepare for that solution, the Palestinian Authority (which is responsible for parts of the West Bank) must return to Gaza and take over control there.

The Palestinian Authority never left the Gaza Strip although it was brutally expelled from there by Hamas in 2007, Borrell said. It might have to be revitalized and reinforced now but it continued to provide public services in the Gaza Strip and pay the salaries of civilian servants there with EU financial support. (The recent Commission review of EU funding stated that the payments had ceased in 2017.)

“The hospitals, the schools, and everything that is public service, everything that is not security and police control, is the Palestinian Authority that is doing it,” Borrell said in a reply to a question at the press conference. “I don’t see another more politically legitimized actor to take control of Gaza and ensure that terrorism is eradicated.”

Does this imply that the Palestinian Authority should take over while Hamas is left with its remaining military capacity and infrastructure in the south of Gaza? “Nothing is decided and there are discussions ongoing,” Peter Stano, EU’s lead spokesperson for foreign affairs, replied.

“But it seems that there are some principles on which everyone agrees – no to Hamas and yes to the Authority eventually taking over in some form,” he added. The European External Action Service (EEAS) is currently in the process of drafting a paper with tentative ideas regarding the stabilization and post-conflict organisation of Gaza for next foreign affairs council meeting in December.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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