European Union foreign ministers mulled calling for a “humanitarian pause” in Gaza during a meeting on Monday, but fell short of considering a full ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas.
The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting in Luxembourg, said he “anticipated” that the bloc’s 27 heads of state could call for a “pause” in the conflict to ensure humanitarian aid reaches civilians in the Gaza strip when they meet for a summit later this week.
UN chief António Guterres first called for a “humanitarian ceasefire” to ease “epic human suffering” in Gaza last Wednesday. But Borrell says the EU’s possible call for a pause falls short of the UN’s ambitions for a full humanitarian ceasefire.
“A ceasefire is certainly much more than a pause,” Borrell said. “A pause, as the name suggests, is an interruption of something that would then continue. It is much less ambitious than a ceasefire, which means an agreement between both sides.”
“A pause can be agreed much quicker, and I believe the ministers consider that a pause is needed so that humanitarian aid can enter,” Borrell added.
EU leaders have not unanimously called for a cessation of hostilities – as states such as Russia and China have – instead proclaiming Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself in response to Hamas’ attack in which Israeli civilians were killed and captured.
Divisions between ministers had emerged earlier on Monday on what a potential humanitarian pause could look like. Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg and the Czech Republic’s Jan Lipavsky showed some scepticism, warning humanitarian supplies could fall into the hands of Hamas.
“We must put ourselves in the shoes of our Israeli friends and consider how we would react in Austria if we were targeted by a terrorist attack,” Schallenberg said, saying Israel was trying to avoid civilian deaths and warning before striking.
But the ministers of Luxembourg, Ireland and Slovenia explicitly called for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire to allow aid to enter Gaza.
On Monday, a third humanitarian convoy entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, after 34 trucks were allowed to enter over the weekend.
The European Commission is tripling its humanitarian aid to Palestinians and has opened an “air bridge” to deliver supplies such as shelter items, medicines and hygiene kits to the Egypt-Gaza border.
Trickle of aid insufficient
But Borrell told reporters that the trickle of aid is “clearly not enough” given that approximately a hundred truckloads of supplies entered Gaza on a typical day before the conflict broke out.
“We’ve seen the first convoys but they are very small. Now, 20 trucks per day are arriving when it’s clear that the needs are much greater,” he said.
Crucially, none of the trucks currently entering Gaza contain fuel, amid Israeli fears it could end up in Hamas’ hands and be used to orchestrate further attacks. But humanitarian agencies warn hospitals and water desalination plants are reliant on fuel to provide life-saving aid to civilian populations.
“If we want people in Gaza to have access to water, we need to make sure fuel arrives,” Borrell said.
On Sunday, the United Nations warned its fuel supplies could run out dry in three days. The United Nations says the lives of 120 newborn babies in incubators are at risk as fuel runs out.
EU divisions remain
The European Union has come under fire for its incoherent response to the conflict and the ensuing humanitarian crisis. On Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen responded to a letter co-signed by over 800 EU staffers denouncing her one-sided stance on the conflict and warning that the bloc is “losing all credibility and the position as a fair, equitable and humanist broker.”
In her response, von der Leyen assured staff that “Europe will always be on the side of humanity and of human rights.”
“We are mourning the loss of every innocent life in this conflict – of all faiths and of all nationalities,” she said.
Borrell, who was quick to denounce Israel’s violation of international humanitarian law in its offensive in Gaza, and who is considered to have taken a more balanced stance on the conflict, said on Monday that the bloc has to be “careful in order to show the same concern for every civilian killed.”
EU foreign ministers also discussed the bloc’s long-term stance on the conflict, including its role in brokering a potential peace deal.
Borrell said Europe has to commit itself to “relaunching” the political process of establishing the so-called two-state solution, where an Israeli and Palestinian state could co-exist.
“We should not lose sight of the final objective,” Borrell said, while acknowledging the difficulty in reviving talks on a peaceful solution to the conflict, which have been stalled for 30 years since the Oslo peace accords.
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