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No EU call for Gaza ceasefire despite Belgium and Ireland's pleas

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo during the European Council Summit, 14 December 2023
Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo during the European Council Summit, 14 December 2023 Copyright SIERAKOWSKI FREDERIC/SIERAKOWSKI FREDERIC
Copyright SIERAKOWSKI FREDERIC/SIERAKOWSKI FREDERIC
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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EU leaders failed to sharpen their stance on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza during talks on Friday, despite Belgium and Ireland's leaders advocating for a ceasefire.

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The summit of EU leaders ended with no new conclusions on the Israel-Hamas war, as leaders opted to reiterate previous declarations on Israel's right to self-defence in line with international law, and the need for unhindered humanitarian access to Gaza.

A call for "humanitarian pauses and corridors" made in late October contributed towards the decisive diplomatic pressure that led to a six-day ceasefire and the release of dozens of Israeli hostages held in the custody of Hamas, which the EU considers a terrorist organisation, since their deadly 7 October attack against Israel.

Many had expected a tougher EU stance after a majority of member states backed a United Nations resolution calling for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" on Tuesday.

But European Council President Charles Michel said in a press conference following the summit that leaders had simply solidified their common position and discussed the bloc’s vision for a long-term peaceful solution to the conflict based on the so-called two-state solution.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, one of the most critical voices of Israel in the bloc, said: "I don't want to say anything more than Charles Michel, who represents the voice of all member states. You all know what the position of the Spanish government is."

His comments were seemingly directed at European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, also present at the press conference, who has been heavily criticised for her unshifting support to Israel and her hesitance to call for restraint and the protection of civilian life in Gaza.

More than 18,000 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis are estimated to have been killed in the conflict since October 7.

Earlier on Friday, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Vardakar and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo clearly expressed their support for a reinforced EU call for a humanitarian ceasefire, suggesting the tide was turning in favour of their position following the UN resolution.

“The majority of EU countries are now calling for a ceasefire,” Varadkar said. “There are one or two that are not because they believe that it would prevent Israel from pursuing Hamas terrorists. I don’t agree with that interpretation.”

“There needs to be a cease of the hostilities,” De Croo said.

“They (Israel) have the right to eliminate the terrorist threat that is originating from Gaza," De Croo added, "but in restraint and in respecting international humanitarian law. And I think it's very clear, there's been too many civilian killings. Let's stop the civilian killings."

Ireland and Belgium, along with Spain and Slovenia, have led EU calls for Israeli restraint and a humanitarian ceasefire to spare innocent civilian lives in Gaza. 

Israeli leaders have vehemently condemned the countries’ positions and summoned the Spanish, Belgian and Irish ambassadors in Tel Aviv in late November in a clear sign of escalating diplomatic tensions.

Austria and the Czech Republic, both staunch allies of Israel, were the only countries to vote against the UN resolution on Tuesday, and have consistently expressed fears a joint EU call for a ceasefire would undermine Israeli efforts to eradicate Hamas.

While a vast majority of capitals have embraced the EU's balanced line, defending Israel’s right to self-defence while calling for respect of international humanitarian law, the persistence of the war has seen countries gravitating towards calls for further restraint.

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Among the countries who backed Tuesday's UN call for a ceasefire were Croatia, Denmark, France, Finland, Greece, Poland and Sweden - these countries had opposed or abstained in a similar vote in October. Germany, Hungary Italy and the Netherlands abstained in the vote.

French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters he was "delighted that France was one of the first to agree to (...) an immediate truce leading to a ceasefire."

"I insisted on the point that we had to adopt a more coherent position on this subject very quickly and move forward," Macron added.

"We're all moving in the same direction," Macron also said, suggesting member states were gradually coalescing around a call for a ceasefire. The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell also recently suggested that a series of permanent pauses in hostilities should "evolve" into a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

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Cyprus' President Nikos Christodoulides also expressed deep frustration following the summit at the lack of conclusion on the Gaza conflict. The Cypriot government has led efforts to boost humanitarian access into Gaza by establishing a bespoke maritime corridor from the Mediterranean island directly to the Gazan coast.

Bloc mulls tightening sanctions

In a sign of a hardening EU stance on Israel, EU foreign ministers discussed plans to sanction violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank earlier this week, including travel bans.

Diplomatic sources said the sanctions plan was aimed at “preserving the possibility of a Palestinian state," given that extremist settlers fiercely oppose the so-called two-state solution that the bloc sees as key to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

“The rise in violence by extremist settlers is inflicting immense suffering on the Palestinians. It undermines the prospects for a lasting peace and could further exacerbate regional instability,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament on Wednesday.

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“I am in favour of sanctioning those involved in the attacks in the West Bank. They must be held accountable. This violence has nothing to do with the fight against Hamas and must stop,” she added.

Member states including Belgium, France and Germany are also mulling national measures to ban the entry of extremist Israeli settlers to their countries.

The UK confirmed on Thursday it was banning extremist Israeli settlers from entering the country.

The EU is also looking at plans to harden its sanctions against Hamas including financial restrictions on militants considered to be the plotters of Hamas' deadly rampage into Israel on October 7.

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