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Ursula von der Leyen defends trip to Israel and says civilians must be protected from 'fury of war'

Ursula von der Leyen addressed the European Parliament on Wednesday morning and discussed the latest developments in the Israel-Hamas war.
Ursula von der Leyen addressed the European Parliament on Wednesday morning and discussed the latest developments in the Israel-Hamas war. Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Ursula von der Leyen defended on Wednesday morning her closely watched trip to Israel and called on the European Union to "redouble" efforts to protect the civilian population in the Gaza Strip.

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"Last night, a new, senseless tragedy shocked us all," she told MEPs in Strasbourg, referring to the devastating strike that hit the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City.

The explosion has reportedly killed hundreds of Palestinians who had sought shelter in the hospital. It is still unclear who was behind the strike.

"The scenes from al-Ahli hospital are horrifying and distressing. There is no excuse for hitting a hospital full of civilians," von der Leyen went on.

"All facts need to be established, and those responsible must be held accountable. In this tragic hour, we must all redouble our efforts to protect civilians from the fury of this war."

The words and actions of the European Commission president have been the subject of intense scrutiny over the past 10 days, with critics reproaching her for expressing steadfast support for Israel without emphasizing the need to respect international law and exercise restraint.

Her trip to Israel last Friday, during which she met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, added to the censure. The following day, von der Leyen released a short statement that backed "Israel's right to defend itself against the Hamas terrorists, in full respect of international humanitarian law."

On Wednesday morning, the Commission chief faced lawmakers of the European Parliament for the first time since the war broke out, an opportunity she used to defend her response to the rapidly evolving situation.

"There is no contradiction in standing in solidarity with Israel and acting on the humanitarian needs of Palestinians," she said.

Von der Leyen denounced the "heinous terror attacks" launched by Hamas "with the explicit goal to eradicate Jewish life" and described Israel as "shocked to its core" by the "pure evil" unleashed against the nation.

"I believe it was important to pass this message of solidarity in person, in Israel, just days after the Hamas attack," she said, referring to her trip.

"Only if we acknowledge Israel's pain, and its right to defend itself, will we have the credibility to say that Israel should react as a democracy, in line with international humanitarian law. And that it is crucial to protect civilian lives, even and especially in the middle of a war."

The president, who did not explicitly address the criticism she has received, said her visit had included discussions about "Israel's efforts to protect civilians lives" and pledged that the EU's position as the largest donor for Palestinians "will not change."

The bloc recently tripled its humanitarian aid and put in place an air bridge to bring supplies to Egypt and then send them to Gaza, although the border remains closed.

"EU funding has never gone to Hamas or any terrorist entity. And it never will," she told lawmakers, underlining the urgency to review development funds. "What Hamas has done has nothing to do with the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people."

Von der Leyen closed her intervention with a stark warning about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe and the spread of hate speech online in reaction to the Israel-Hamas war.  Her executive opened last week a formal investigation into X, formerly Twitter, over the platform's handling of misinformation and violent terrorist content.

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"It is our shared responsibility to make sure that our dark past does not return," she said. "We have to protect Jewish life in Europe."

'Peace won't come alone'

Wednesday's debate on the Middle East also featured a speech by Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, who, compared to von der Leyen, has adopted a more critical stance regarding Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

"The right to self-defence, like any other right, has limits. In this case, it's the limits set by international law and, in particular, by international humanitarian law," Borrell told MEPs.

"Condemning one tragedy shouldn't prevent us from condemning another tragedy," he went on. "Showing our sympathy for the victims of terrorist attacks shouldn't, and doesn't, prevent us from showing our feelings for the other dead."

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In order to buttress the EU's common position, Borrell proposed four principles: firmness to denounce Hamas and demand the liberation of hostages, humanity towards Gaza's civilian population, political coherence to speak with one voice, and political commitment to tackle the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promote a "just peace."

"The peace between Arab countries and Israel, which is good news, doesn't automatically achieve the peace between Israel and Palestine, which also has to be achieved," he said. "As long as there is no peace there will not be an army powerful enough to guarantee Israel's peace."

"But peace won't come alone, peace needs to be built," he added.

Borrell invoked the spirit of the Oslo Accords, a landmark pair of agreements signed in the mid-1990s that opened the way for Palestinian self-governance but were never fully implemented, leaving the peace process incomplete. Oslo was supposed to be the prelude to the two-state solution.

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"Since Oslo until now, the number of Israeli settlers (in the) occupied territories has tripled. And the space for a possible Palestinian state has shrunk and turned into a labyrinth of spaces detached from each other," he said.

"But even if the (two-state) solution seems far away, we don't have anything else. What is the alternative? If there aren't two states, there can only be one, and what kind of life would there be in that state? In what conditions?"

In the diplomat's view, the best way for Europe to honour the dead "on one side and the other" was to inject the political impetus necessary to revive peace talks within the framework of the United Nations.

"The way in which we communicate our position in this conflict is going to determine Europe's role in the world for many years ahead," Borrell said.

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