European leaders torn by 'problematic' endgame over Israel’s war in Gaza

Time is 'running out' for Israel's large-scale operation in Gaza as allies start to shift their positions, analysts say

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna speaks at a press conference during a visit to Beirut. AP
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Israel’s western allies are piling up pressure for an Israeli shift away from the full-scale offensive in Gaza, with demands rising for a ceasefire or a clear military plan to better differentiate between Hamas targets and civilians.

Germany and the UK have recently aligned with US calls for Israel to better protect civilians. Catherine Colonna, the French Foreign Minister, discussed the war in Gaza with her UK counterpart David Cameron in Paris on Tuesday as both countries said their "converging views" included a shared objective to ensure the protection of civilians in Gaza.

“You can feel world opinion becoming more critical of what Israel is doing,” retired senior British diplomat Lord Peter Ricketts told The National.

“Time is running out for Israel to continue operations at this level of civilian casualties.”

A shift in military tactics to more targeted operations should take place in a matter of weeks, he said.

“Time is short. Probably some weeks – but not months.”

More than 19,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory military operation in Gaza, which began in response to a Hamas-led attack on October 7 that killed about 1,200 people.

The World Health Organisation, which reached Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital on Sunday, described it as resembling a “bloodbath”.

Military tactics must change

Europe and the US are now telling Israel that it must conduct its military operation differently, Ms Colonna said on Tuesday after returning from a trip to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon during which she called for an "immediate and durable ceasefire."

“Several of us are saying that the conduct of military operations seems problematic,” Ms Colonna, told national radio France Info.

“A greater distinction must be made between targeted operations which may be legitimate and necessary to defeat Hamas, and the exposure of the population civil society to too much suffering, which is not justifiable.”

Later in the day, Ms Colonna also discussed the war in Gaza with Mr Cameron. The two countries are “closely co-ordinating” on the Middle East conflict as well as on Ukraine, she wrote on X.

A "sustainable ceasefire" in which Israel feels safe from Hamas attacks should be enacted as soon as possible, Mr Cameron said at a joint press conference.

The two diplomats also had “very good” discussions about how to retrieve the Hamas-held hostages that remain in Gaza and how to increase humanitarian aid to the enclave, said Mr Cameron.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen signalled that his country was ready to listen to France's warnings – in particular over spillover fears in Lebanon.

“France could play a positive and crucial role in preventing a war in Lebanon,” Mr Cohen said at a joint press briefing on Sunday.

Yet so far, Israel has given no deadline for its military operation, which is aimed at eliminating Hamas. It has so far failed in one of its key objectives: to kill Hamas top leaders including Yahya Sinwar.

Israel claims to have killed more than 7,000 Hamas operatives, a figure roughly the same as the total number of men who have died in Gaza under Israeli bombardment these past months.

“For a large part of Arab opinion, this is close to saying that every man in Gaza is a potential terrorist in Israel’s eyes,” French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu in an article published in daily Le Monde.

Mr Filiu warned this may fuel criticism of the international community's alleged “passivity” or even “complicity” with Israel.

Meanwhile, support from the US, Israel’s most important ally, has remained firm.

But it now also includes calls to transition “to the next phase of operations”, according to a readout of discussions held by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin during a visit to Israel on Monday.

This shift in positioning has found an echo among Israel’s closest partners in the EU that up to now had resisted pressure to call for a ceasefire.

The change in views in the bloc was recently made clear during two votes in the UN General Assembly: the first on October 26 calling for a truce, and the second on December 12 requesting a ceasefire.

The votes are non-binding and akin to barometers of world opinion.

A group of countries including Denmark, Greece and Poland switched from abstaining to voting in favour.

For Denmark, the explanation behind the change lies in the “catastrophic” humanitarian situation Gaza, said Foreign Affairs Minister Lokke Rasmussen.

Greece's Foreign Affairs Minister George Gerapetritis said the December 12 text was “much more balanced”.

“It covers exactly the issues that need to be raised, especially for hostages, but also for the condemnation of terrorism in all its forms,” Mr Gerapetritis said.

“And of course, there is a growing concern about the humanitarian crisis that we are currently seeing in the Middle East.”

Some votes remained constant: the US voted against the resolutions both times, while Germany and the UK abstained. France and Spain twice voted in favour.

A change in London and Berlin

Yet Germany has recently backed the UK's calls for a “sustainable ceasefire”, signalling a hardening against Israel from its strongest EU ally, analysts say.

Differences remain with France, however.

In a joint call, Mr Cameron and German Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock said urging Israel to enact an immediate ceasefire was unhelpful, as it would ignore “why Israel is forced to defend itself: Hamas barbarically attacked Israel and still fires rockets to kill Israeli citizens every day”.

Rather, Israel should “do more to discriminate sufficiently between terrorists and civilians” and allow more aid to reach “ordinary Palestinians”.

This call for a change in tactic, combined with a suggestion for a ceasefire when Israel deems fit, marks a “shift in position” that brings the two countries in line with the US, said Lord Ricketts.

“They are saying: there is no point in calling for an immediate ceasefire that Hamas would simply break, fighting would quickly resume and things would be worse off than before because any confidence would have been destroyed,” he said.

Germany and the UK are also hedging their bets as international dismay over the war mounts, said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at think tank ECFR.

“They’re half-heartedly calling for a ceasefire on one hand but saying it’s on Israel’s timeline on the other,” Mr Barnes-Dacey told The National.

“It’s effectively a nicer way to say no to an immediate ceasefire.”

These signals from Berlin might explain in part the harsh words used by the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell on Tuesday to describe Israel’s ongoing military operations.

“We are witnessing an appalling lack of distinction in Israel’s military operation in Gaza,” wrote Mr Borrell on X.

Mr Borrell pointed at reports on Sunday of an Israeli soldier shooting dead two Christian women, an elderly mother and her daughter, in the grounds of a Catholic church in Gaza city.

He also highlighted the recent killing of three Israeli hostages – shirtless and waving a white flag – by Israeli soldiers who ignored orders not to fire, according to the military.

“This must stop – a humanitarian pause is urgently needed,” said Mr Borrell.

Updated: December 19, 2023, 6:13 PM