A total siege of Gaza is “not in line with international law”, European Council President Charles Michel said on Tuesday after EU heads of state met online to iron out their stance on the Israel-Hamas war.
The extraordinary meeting was necessary to give EU leaders the opportunity to build "unity and coherence" over the crisis, Michel said, and to reiterate their support for Israel's right to defend its sovereign territory whilst respecting the boundaries of international humanitarian law.
But questioned about whether EU leaders considered some of Israel's actions since it launched its offensive to be in breach of international law, Michel said: “A total siege, when you cut basic infrastructure, when you cut access to water, when you cut electricity, when you don’t allow food to enter: this is not in line with international law."
His counterpart at the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, whose hesitation in calling on Israel to spare civilians in its attacks on the Gaza strip has generated unease in many EU capitals, also told reporters she had explained to the Israeli authorities that "providing water to Gaza is essential."
"This is a basic human right," she added.
A minute of silence for victims in Israel, Palestine, and also in France and Belgium following recent terror attacks was observed by leaders at the beginning of the meeting, which started shortly after a hospital in Gaza city was hit by an airstrike killing at least 300 people according to local authorities. Hamas and the Israeli government have blamed each other for the strike.
EU leaders also once again emphasised the need to address the short-term humanitarian needs and to prevent the conflict from escalating after the bloc's uncoordinated response sparked criticism.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, called for restraint in Israel’s counter-offensive last Tuesday. But von der Leyen first referred to the need to respect international humanitarian law only last Saturday, days after Israeli forces cut off the supply of water, food and electricity to the besieged Gaza strip.
A diplomatic row also erupted after a communication debacle over EU aid to Palestine, after Hungarian Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi announced on social media platform X that "all payments" to the Palestinians had been "immediately suspended", forcing the Commission to backtrack.
It then announced a tripling of humanitarian aid to Palestinians over the weekend and the creation of a humanitarian air bridge to bring supplies to Egypt. Von der Leyen said the Commission is "in contact with the Egyptian authorities to enable our (EU) aid to enter Gaza".
Preventing regional escalation
Leaders also discussed how they would engage on a political and diplomatic level with Israel and with Arab countries in the region to prevent the conflict from splintering further.
"We know that an escalation of the conflict at a regional level would represent a danger for the wider region as well as for Europe, and for the whole world - especially at a moment when Russia has launched a war against Ukraine," Michel said.
"I have been recently talking to several Arab leaders," von der Leyen said. "All were very clear about the importance of our EU funding and that these events have the potential to draw the entire region into conflict, and this would put in doubt the positive impact of our entire neighbourhood funding."
German chancellor Olaf Scholz joined the meeting from Israel, where he will meet government officials including the premier Benjamin Netanyahu, before traveling to Egypt.
Egypt is seen as a key player as it shares a border with the south of the Gaza strip, and is under immense pressure from the international community to open humanitarian corridors to ensure critical aid reaches civilians.
But the Egyptian authorities have been reluctant to open their borders, fearing an overwhelming influx of refugees. According to Michel, Egypt also wants to prevent a mass exodus of Palestinians into its territory as it would undermine the path towards a two-state solutions, suggesting there are concerns Israel could annex Gaza should the population flee.
In remarks suggesting the EU is considering a formal agreement to cooperate with Egypt von der Leyen said the bloc "must work and support Egypt in this current crisis and establish a comprehensive package."
Warning that migratory waves could also reach Europe via Egypt, Michel suggested that Europe could engage with Egypt on a "broad partnership, including on migration" in order to facilitate possible access to Gaza.
Protecting security in Europe
A day after Brussels was shaken by a terrorist attack that took the lives of two Swedish nationals, EU leaders also addressed the possible threat to "domestic security" in Europe.
The Brussels attack has awakened fears of a contagion of violence across the continent, including both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attacks.
"Terror is resurfacing and the member states are highly vigilant on this topic," von der Leyen said.
"This conflict has a lot of resonance and is generating a lot of divisions and polarisation among our (...) societies," Michel said.
"That's why we need also to cooperate at the European level to try to diffuse the tensions, to try to prevent the security risks, and also to strengthen the cooperation between our security services," Michel added.