All EU countries, bar Hungary, call for eventual Gaza ceasefire

Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto
Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto Copyright Denes Erdos/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Denes Erdos/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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All European Union countries, except for Hungary, have jointly called for an eventual ceasefire in Gaza and urged Israel not to launch its planned assault on Rafah.

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Budapest refused to endorse the call, despite pressure from other capitals, and also single-handedly derailed EU plans to collectively slap sanctions on violent Israeli settlers, first tabled in December following a fresh bout of attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

It followed ten hours of intense talks between EU foreign ministers on Monday, during which Hungary's Péter Szijjártó dug in his heels and blocked consensus on both issues.

In a rare occurrence for the bloc, 26 of 27 member states isolated Hungary and issued their own statement calling for "an immediate humanitarian pause that could lead to a sustainable ceasefire" in the besieged Gaza Strip, where some 29,000 Palestinians have lost their lives since the start of the war.

The 26 nations also endorsed a statement asking the Israeli government not to press on with its planned military action in the southern Gazan town of Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians are fleeing from war.

An assault on Rafah would "worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation and prevent the urgently needed provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance," the statement reads.

It adds significant international pressure on the Israeli war cabinet to refrain from its planned ground offensive in Rafah, which Prime Minister Netanyahu claims harbours the last of Hamas' militants in Gaza.

A member of the war cabinet threatened Monday to launch the offensive if the remaining hostages held by Hamas in Gaza aren't freed by Ramadan.

But the lack of unanimous support for the statements further highlights the EU's continuous struggle to strike a common line on the conflict in the Middle East.

"I know very well that if there is no unanimity, there is no common EU position, but there can be a sufficiently majority-backed position," the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, explained.

"Naturally, this doesn't strengthen our position. Europe can only play a role when it is united," he added.

Budapest has in recent months threatened to use its veto power to delay or completely derail the EU’s foreign policy decisions.

It has forced the European Council to explore creative ways of side-stepping Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was asked to leave the European Council negotiating room in December to allow the remaining heads of state and government to approve opening accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova without him.

The bloc was also forced to delay the approval of its €50-billion aid package for Ukraine by around seven weeks after failing to draw concessions from Orbán last December.

Sanctions on settlers derailed

While the UK and the US have sanctioned extremist Israeli settlers for attacks on Palestinian communities as far back as December, the bloc’s own plan had been held up for months.

A handful of member states - notably the Czech Republic and Hungary - had rejected targeting settlers under the same sanctions framework that applies to Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation in the EU, fearing it would send a misleading political message.

“It is not a good political signal for terrorists (...) to be more or less in the same package as persons who commit extremely politically motivated acts, but that cannot in any way be compared to terrorism,” Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavský said ahead of the meeting on Monday, emphasising that his country had not been blocking the sanctions package entirely.

Speaking after the meeting, Lipavský said he had expressed that Prague had "no problem with the package in principle," but that another member state came forward and "simply blocked the whole package of sanctions against the settlers."

The bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said he was pushing member states to take action for what he called “terrorist actions” against Palestinians in the West Bank.

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“The West Bank is boiling, and if they do not let people go to the mosques during the festivities, during the Ramadan, the situation could become even worse,” Borrell said.

In a sign of EU member states’ patience wearing thin, France unilaterally imposed sanctions on Israeli settlers last Tuesday, barring 28 individuals from entry into France.

Belgium, Ireland and Spain have indicated they would also be prepared to introduce their own sanctions if the EU deadlock persisted.

“If there is no deal, Spain will certainly proceed alone with these sanctions against the violent settlers,” Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Albares said earlier on Monday.

Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin said: “If we don't get unanimity, then we are prepared to do it ourselves as a country. Ireland is and I know others are contemplating that as well.”

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The UN estimates Israeli settler violence has increased significantly since the start of the war in Gaza, rising to an average of seven incidents per day compared to three per day before Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel.

Over the weekend, Borrell told the Munich Security Conference that violence in the West Bank, as extremist Israelis encroach on Palestinian territory, is the “real obstacle for the two-state solution,” the West’s preferred arrangement to ensure lasting peace and security in the region.

The bloc is hoping to play a role in negotiations towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but its credibility is being hampered by entrenched internal divisions between member states.

Borrell confirmed that the bloc would continue to "study how to proceed" on sanctions against Israeli settlers, as well as against Hamas militants for "human rights violations and sexual violence."

"The decision is to continue discussing about how to proceed in both cases," he said.

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