EU opposes pushing people out of Gaza, says Middle East peace envoy

Two-state solution remains only option on the table, Sven Koopmans tells The National

Sven Koopmans, the EU's special representative for the Middle East peace process, stressed the need for humanitarian pauses in the fighting. Getty Images
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The European Union is against civilians being pushed out of Gaza, a senior EU official told The National on Tuesday, as the battle inside the enclave intensifies.

After telling Gazans to move south, Israel has been asking western leaders to lobby Egypt to accept Palestinian refugees, according to media reports.

The idea has been rejected by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and European officials. “The EU opposes pushing anyone out of Gaza, if anyone had that idea,” said Sven Koopmans, the EU's special representative for the Middle East peace process.

“I do not believe that [this] is the current declared policy of the Israeli government,” added Mr Koopmans. “It is very clear that Egypt would not accept [it].”

More than half of Gaza's population of two million people were displaced by Israel's retaliatory attacks, launched after an unprecedented Hamas incursion in its territory killed more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Palestinian authorities have said that the counter-strikes on Gaza have killed more than 8,500 people.

So far, people are not allowed out of Gaza as the Rafah crossing with Egypt remains closed. As of Monday, only 117 aid lorriescarrying humanitarian aid had been allowed to cross into the enclave since October 21. Before the conflict, an average of about 450 lorries were arriving daily in Gaza.

Food, medicine, and fuel are running low and aid officials warn of a public health crisis and of infant deaths due to dehydration. People have started raiding UN warehouses in search of food.

A call for humanitarian pauses issued last Thursday in a joint statement by the EU's 27 heads of state has so far had little impact on Israel's military operation in Gaza which aims at eradicating Hamas. It has further intensified with reports of street fighting in the enclave.

Speaking from his Brussels office, Mr Koopmans reiterated the need for such pauses, saying they were “important for survival”.

“Israel needs to reopen the water supply, the electricity, the fuel, medicine and fuel supply,” he said.

“The people of Gaza have the right to live in Gaza in peace and security.

“At the same time, Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorism … but that needs to happen with full respect [for] international humanitarian law and that also means protecting civilians,” he added.

“You cannot just ask people to leave half of their available land at extremely short notice and without actual ability to follow up.”

EU officials are pushing these messages in their public and private statements with Palestinian leaders as well as with representatives from Israel, Arab countries and the US, said Mr Koopmans.

“Just an hour or two ago, the Qatari ambassador sat here,” he said, gesturing at a chair in front of him.

Qatar plays an important role in the hostage negotiation process, and I thanked him for it and offered our support where we can, to move that forward.”

On October 7 Hamas, listed as a terror organisation by the EU, took more than 220 hostages who are believed to be being held in its tunnel complex in Gaza.

On Monday, the Israeli army said it had freed a hostage soldier for the first time. In parallel, Hamas published a video of female captives criticising Israel's response to the militant group's attacks.

Lack of hope

Mr Koopmans, a former Dutch politician and lawyer who has been the special representative since 2021, also recognised that imposing the EU's viewpoint in the region is a difficult exercise.

“We cannot guarantee success, let's be honest,” he said. “We are not in control of the place.”

He stressed that it has become more urgent than ever to find a solution to the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict.

“This is a crisis of today but also the crisis that we need to resolve tomorrow,” said Mr Koopmans, who acknowledged the “hopelessness” of the people in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as the “lack of hope among many Israelis for a peaceful resolution to this conflict”.

But how can the EU help bring hope to the region? “That's a terrible dilemma that we have to all work on right now,” answered Mr Koopmans. “I don't want to claim that I have the right answers. The situation is atrocious.”

The EU still hopes for a two-state solution despite many analysts saying that it is growing more difficult by the day to implement. The number of illegal settlers continues to soar and has reached 700,000 people in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

“In the end, there needs to be an independent Palestinian state living next to a safe and secure Israel,” said Mr Koopmans. “And that Palestinian state also needs to be safe and secure.”

The recent war in Gaza has also fuelled settler violence which was condemned on Sunday by France as “unacceptable”.

The EU did not issue a fresh condemnation but Mr Koopmans said that the bloc has long criticised attacks against Palestinians in occupied territories.

“Terrorism for us is terrorism, regardless of the identity of the victim or the perpetrator,” he said.

Before the latest war, the EU had been hoping to reinvigorate the peace process with the launch of a so-called “peace day” in September in New York in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the League of Arab States.

The aim was to set up a list of incentives for both parties including security assurances, should they one day agree to make peace – a package described by Mr Koopmans as “100 per cent carrots”.

But the Israel-Gaza war has forced the EU to delay by at least one month working group meetings that were scheduled for two weeks' time in Brussels and in Riyad next month.

Brussels is also scaling up the project to discuss the aftermath of the war and how to preserve the two-state solution, according to Mr Koopmans.

He recognised that identifying “lots of wonderful things” will not bring about peace, but the exercise is also meant to project the idea that the EU cares.

“We care about the conflict, we care about their security, their identity, their freedom, and we want to contribute,” he said.

Updated: November 01, 2023, 9:43 AM