EU's top diplomat calls for a 'humanitarian pause' in Gaza

Ministers say claims that the bloc is divided over the Middle East conflict are exaggerated

Volunteers gather around lorries carrying aid that entered Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing. AFP
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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday urged faster aid deliveries to Gaza and said the bloc was debating a call for a “humanitarian pause” in Israel's conflict with Hamas.

“Personally, I think a humanitarian pause is needed to allow humanitarian support to come into [the enclave] and be distributed,” said Mr Borrell as he arrived at a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Luxembourg.

“In normal times, without war, 100 trucks enter Gaza every day, so it’s clear that 20 is not enough.”

A first shipment of 20 lorries carrying humanitarian aid was allowed through the Rafah border crossing on Saturday.

It was followed by a second convoy of 17 on Sunday and a third comprising 40 on Monday.

Mr Borrell said ministers would discuss calls from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a “humanitarian ceasefire”.

“It’s important to have fuel to make the power stations work and the desalination stations work,” he said. “Otherwise, there is no water and no electricity and without water and electricity, hospitals can barely work.”

Mr Borrell said that a pause was also needed for Israeli hostages held by Hamas to be returned safely.

“It’s part of any step towards de-escalation,” he said.

Israel said on Monday that 222 people had been confirmed as taken hostage on October 7 by Hamas.

In its unprecedented cross-border raid, the militant group, labelled as terrorist by the EU, killed more than 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians.

About 5,000 Palestinians, also mainly civilians, have been killed in the Gaza Strip by Israel’s retaliatory bombardments.

Asked by reporters why the aid was not reaching Gaza, Mr Borrell said: “At the moment, Egypt is ready to let all the trucks [that] are queuing to enter. I don’t want to put the blame on anyone but the fact is that they are not entering.”

Foreign affairs ministers from the bloc acknowledged the complexity of the situation but said that a call for a ceasefire was unlikely. The EU is divided by the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Germany's Annalena Baerbock said the “fight against terrorism, which has brought so much suffering to the people of Gaza, is essential”.

“At the same time, everything must be done to alleviate the unbelievable suffering of the two million people in Gaza,” she said.

“This is squaring the circle. But we must face this squaring of the circle together.”

Others said they backed Mr Guterres’ call for a humanitarian pause, which would be “welcome,” said Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

“The EU can in no way spell out conditions to Israel,” said Mr Asselborn.

“But we can explain our point of view and echo what [US] President Biden said: do not react with rage.”

Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said that the conflict could spill over to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon.

“Lebanon is in no position to withstand a conflict at this stage due to the perilous situation it is in,” said Mr Martin.

Others were keen to reaffirm their support for Israel.

Questioned about whether the EU would call for a ceasefire, Czech Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Lipavsky said: “I hope that everyone understands that Israel has a right to self-defence.”

The EU, particularly EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has been criticised both internally and externally for its pro-Israel stance and double standards in comparison with the war in Ukraine.

Mr Borrell acknowledged the issue, saying “the issue of double standards that already was there before the war in Gaza, now it comes again”.

“We have to be very […] careful in order to show the same concern for every civilian killed,” he said.

Echoing previous statements made by Ms von der Leyen, Latvia’s Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins said there was “no contradiction” between a complete condemnation of the killing of 1,400 Israelis by Hamas, the EU’s support for Israeli self-defence and its calls to protect civilian lives.

“The EU is not as far apart as maybe the media and some of our non-friends would want,” said Mr Karins.

The bloc’s foreign affairs ministers are unlikely to call for a ceasefire, he said.

“It’s a question of what we are emphasising: Israel against Hamas, or are we emphasising what is actually happening to civilians. These are not contradictions. These are just different ends to the same, rather difficult, puzzle,” he said.

Updated: October 23, 2023, 9:35 AM