EU leaders under pressure to call for ‘humanitarian pause’ in Gaza

Politicians explain to The National why European Parliament resolution did not include a call for a ceasefire

Gaza has been struck repeatedly by Israel following the attack by Hamas. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an immediate ceasefire in the enclave. Bloomberg
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Pressure is mounting on European heads of state, scheduled to meet in Brussels on Thursday, to call for a “humanitarian pause” in the Gaza Strip as the bloc’s member states remain divided about how to respond to the conflict.

In an apparent sign of sensitivity of the topic, European politicians have told The National calling for a ceasefire instead of a “humanitarian pause” in a resolution adopted last week would have torpedoed the text, which received 500 out of 545 votes in favour.

“I think we wouldn’t have reached a majority if our amendment on the ceasefire would have been voted,” said MEP Jordi Sole, a Spaniard who negotiated on behalf of Europe’s Greens group on the resolution.

“I think it’s better to have got 'humanitarian pause' in the text than nothing,” he told The National.

The resolution focused on the “despicable attacks by Hamas against Israel, Israel’s right to defend itself in line with humanitarian and international law and the humanitarian situation in Gaza”.

Its lead negotiator, MEP Hilde Vautmans, said she was “personally in favour of a ceasefire”, a call previously made by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

“However, the compromise with all the groups was to call for a humanitarian pause,” she said, answering written questions sent by The National.

“This means we are calling at least for a halt of fire around the humanitarian corridors – which we are still waiting for," added Ms Vautmans, a Belgian politician from the centrist Renew group.

“All crossing points need to be reopened, in co-ordination with both Israel and Egypt, to provide the much-needed humanitarian aid and allow those who want to flee to find a safe haven."

'Epic suffering'

Speaking to the UN Security Council, Mr Guterres on Tuesday said an immediate ceasefire was necessary to end the “epic suffering” in Gaza.

Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the EU and other western countries, killed more than 1,400 Israelis in a raid on October 7.

Israel has responded with a total blockade and intense shelling of the Gaza Strip in which more than 5,700 Palestinians have been killed.

Mr Guterres said the Hamas attacks were “appalling” but also highlighted the “suffocating occupation” to which Palestinians have been subjected for the past five decades.

The Hamas raids “did not happen in a vacuum”, he said.

"The grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas and those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people."

The comments triggered a strong rebuke from Israel’s envoy to the UN, Gilad Erdan, who called on Mr Guterres to resign.

EU countries have so far been more cautious than the UN, with some critics describing the bloc's reaction as staunchly pro-Israeli. Few leaders have so far contextualised the attacks.

“If you say that [the Hamas attacks] did not happen in a vacuum, you’re indirectly, according to some interpretations, recognising the legitimate resistance to the occupation which is not acceptable for a majority of member states,” one EU official told The National.

“Terrorist attacks cannot be seen in the context of the Palestinian struggle. This must happen in a political context that we have been advocating for."

The European Parliament resolution calls on “a fundamental change to the political, security and economic situation in the Gaza Strip”.

Mr Sole said his group had asked for the resolution to include a call to end the blockade but there was no majority for this.

“My understanding is that 'fundamental change' points to the need of replacing Hamas rule and establishing another security environment as the condition for Israel ending the blockade and thus alleviating the harsh socioeconomic conditions in the strip,” he said.

A pause ... or pauses?

Ms Vautmans said: “We reiterated the longstanding position of the international community as a whole and the EU, since 2007 [the year of Hamas’s takeover of the enclave] that the blockade of Gaza constitutes a collective punishment with real consequences for 2.3 million people.

“We call for this siege to be lifted, while respecting Israel’s legitimate security concerns.”

The National has also reached out to MEPs from the socialists and democrats and the European People’s Party. The S&D did not respond and the EPP postponed a call due to time constraints.

Since the start of the latest Israel-Gaza war, a few lorries with essential aid supplies have crossed into the strip from Egypt. But many, including US President Joe Biden, say that it is not enough.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Tuesday warned operations were at breaking point and that fuel was urgently required.

Despite growing unease about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, divisions at EU level were apparent at a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday in Luxembourg.

While countries such as Ireland made explicit statements calling for a “humanitarian pause”, others including the Czech Republic skirted around the issue, saying “the question is how it would be established”.

But EU heads of state seem on track to agreeing to some kind of language on the need for a humanitarian pause in a two-day summit starting on Thursday.

In a statement on behalf of the EU to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, head of delegation Olof Skoog said: “What is needed now is the establishment of humanitarian corridors and pauses.”

This would help secure the release of the more than 200 Israeli hostages held by Hamas and allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid, while ensuring it is not “abused by terrorist organisations but ends up in the hands of those in need”, said Mr Skoog.

Whether European leaders agree on calling for only one or for several pauses this week is currently under discussion.

Whatever is chosen in the end matters little, said the EU official, since any humanitarian pause can itself be halted for fighting to resume.

"It’s EU jargon at this point,” the source said.

Updated: October 25, 2023, 11:11 AM