Belgium's FM says Gaza's fighting must stop: It's not war, it's terrorism

Hadja Lahbib called for an immediate ceasefire and warned of further regional spillover

Belgium Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib speaking to The National in Abu Dhabi on February 29, 2024. Photo: Belgium Foreign Ministry
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Belgium's Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib described the conflict in Gaza as "terrorism", calling for an immediate ceasefire and warning of further regional spillover.

In an interview with The National during a visit to Abu Dhabi, the top diplomat said that Belgium, in collaboration with the EU, has developed a peace plan ahead of an anticipated peace conference in April.

“What is happening in the Middle East, in Gaza right now is, it's not really a war. It's terrorism," said the minister on Thursday evening.

"The terrorist attack on the seventh of October, we completely condemned it," she added, but emphasized that "on the other side, if Israel has the right to defend itself, it has to be within the limits of international law".

Israel's war in the besieged Palestinian territory started after militants of Hamas, the de-facto rulers of the coastal Strip, launched unprecedented attacks on southern Israel, killing more than 1000 people and taking around 250 hostages.

Since the start of the assault, more than 30,000 people in Gaza including thousands of women and children have been killed in Israeli strikes, with tens of thousands more missing under the rubble of bombed buildings.

Ms Lahbib said that for several months, she has been calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, unhindered humanitarian access, the release of hostages and to ensure that dialogue is ongoing between the two sides.

But despite a regional diplomatic push for a ceasefire, the bleak humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in the Palestinian enclave.

Aid 'catastrophe'

The minister of foreign affairs was speaking after Israeli soldiers opened fire on Thursday near a convoy of food trucks trying to take food to northern Gaza, killing at least 112 and injuring 760 Palestinians who were trying to access aid on the vehicles.

Israel said many of the dead were trampled in a chaotic stampede for food aid and that its troops only fired when they felt endangered by the hungry crowd.

“What happened this morning in Gaza, the killing of hundreds of people because of mistakes is a catastrophe, but it could happen on a large scale and provoke a spillover of the conflict,” Ms Lahbib said.

“That's why I constantly asked for a ceasefire."

Thursday's bloodshed in the besieged Gaza Strip came as the war was nearing its sixth month.

Israel is seeking to destroy Hamas, the Iran-backed group considered a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union, after its militants stormed into southern Israel on October 7.

“This move must be punished,” Ms Lahbib said of the militant attacks.

On the other side, the relentless bombardment of the enclave — home to about 2.3 million people before the conflict began — has left hundreds of thousands with limited or no access to food and health care.

“I want to be precise, we are not for Palestinians and against Israel. We are not for Israelis and against Palestinians, we are for peace,” said the European minister.

“And for me, I would like to have both sides around the table. That's very important,” she added.

European peace conference

Ms Lahbib hopes that an EU peace conference with the participation of Arab states can be an “evolution” to the Middle East peace process. The conference, expected to be held in April, will aim at buoying the two-state solution, the minister said.

“We have prepared with the EU a comprehensive peace plan. And the aim is to have, let's say in April, a peace conference preparing peaceful two-state solutions,” she said.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders might not be present at the conference, explained the diplomat, but added that the hope is that representatives of European and Arab states will attend to help relaunch the negotiations.

“There are many scenarios on the table and we are negotiating with Jordan, Egypt, and others,” she said.

One recent particular area of concern for the EU states and other major stakeholders, including the US, is Israel's plans to attack the southern border city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million has taken refuge.

Aid organisations also say a Rafah offensive could decimate what remains of humanitarian operations, occurring close to the main aid crossing to the enclave.

Ms Lahbib said she spared no effort when attempting to get all 26 European States to advise Israel against a ground operation in the southern area.

“The statement was not easy at all to get the EU to say no to a ground operation in Rafah,” she said, adding that she spent ten hours shuttling between all sides.

“The main priority for me was to launch a strong signal to Israel, please don't start a ground military operation in Rafah that could lead to a catastrophe," she told The National.

Updated: March 01, 2024, 2:42 PM