Macron sets sights on Gaza ceasefire at Paris aid summit

High-level officials are attending the conference in Paris but Arab turn-out is mixed with Israel absent

French President Emmanuel Macron is hosting a meeting to discuss humanitarian needs in the besieged Gaza Strip. EPA
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French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday set a goal of a ceasefire in Gaza when he opened a conference on aid for the Palestinian territory.

He made an appeal for Israel to protect civilians as it bombards the territory, saying “all lives have equal worth” and that fighting terrorism “can never be carried out without rules”.

He told delegates in Paris: "In the immediate term, we need to work on protecting civilians. To do that, we need a humanitarian pause very quickly and we must work towards a ceasefire."

He said by attacking Israel, Hamas “shouldered the responsibility for exposing Palestinians to terrible consequences”, and he again supported Israel’s right to defend itself.

But Mr Macron also stressed that civilians must be protected. "It’s absolutely essential. It is non-negotiable,” he said.

Government representatives from across the world as well as NGO leaders are meeting in Paris at the initiative of Mr Macron to discuss humanitarian needs in the besieged Gaza Strip, however, critics say it is not clear what can be achieved at the hastily arranged forum.

France wants “tangible results”, an Elysee source said, to ensure entry of humanitarian access into the Gaza Strip, where more than 10,500 people have been killed since October 7 in retaliatory Israeli bombardment to a Hamas-led attack that killed about 1,400 people.

Some countries are expected to announce increases in humanitarian aid for Gaza. Mr Macron announced France's contribution would rise from €20 million to €100 million.

Negotiations to transfer wounded Palestinians from Gaza for treatment in France and Europe are on the agenda, as well as how to send aid to the enclave via the sea. The only crossing point by land remains tightly restricted.

Yet the logistical implementation of such plans is highly uncertain. Officials have ruled out the use of Gaza Port as a reception point, meaning maritime aid would have to be delivered either to Egypt or Israel first. There has been no concrete proposal as to how this would work.

France has also deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean helicopter carrier Tonnerre, which has a hospital with two operating rooms, 69 beds and a large stockpile of army rations.

But recent reporting by Radio France, which boarded the Tonnerre, showed that there were no patients so far on the ship despite the evacuation of dozens of wounded Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. The Tonnerre's commander said that only up to four severely wounded civilians could be taken aboard.

With this conference, which has been under preparation for the past week, France is attempting to show it is working on finding solutions to the deadly conflict, said Kelly Petillo, programme manager for the Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

But whether such meetings will bring results is another story, said Ms Petillo, who described France's response so far to the conflict as “largely a PR stunt”.

Israel, which will not attend the conference in Paris, has so far refused calls for a ceasefire and vowed to destroy Hamas in its entirety. Recent reports suggest a three-day humanitarian truce is under negotiation.

“It is unlikely that these proposals will be helpful and sufficient without a wider humanitarian pause at least,” Ms Petillo told The National.

“But the merit of the effort is in bringing western, global and regional actors [minus Russia] together and brainstorm solutions which is at least some kind of action and an effort towards the crisis.”

Attendees of Mr Macron's conference include the EU's most senior leaders, Council President Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, as well as Cyprus' President Nikos Christodoulides and Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

Yet many Arab countries are scheduled to be represented by government officials instead of foreign affairs ministers – except Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry. The Palestinian Authority will be represented by its Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

Lebanon, which borders Israel and fears becoming embroiled in the war due to increasing tit-for-tat at the frontier between militia group Hezbollah and the Israeli army, is also not represented.

The low-level turnout among many Arab countries can be in part explained by a summit organised in parallel by Saudi Arabia on the Israel-Gaza conflict, an Elysee source said.

They played down Israel's absence in Paris, saying Mr Macron held several calls with Israeli leaders and that the conference was taking place “in full transparency with Israel”.

“Israel will be absent but we are in daily contact with them,” they said.

But the conference has raised scepticism even among French diplomats, who told Le Monde they feared it would be labelled as yet another “avalanche of initiatives” put forward by their President, who was widely criticised for a proposal made during a trip to Israel last month to widen an anti-ISIS coalition to fight Hamas.

Le Monde, which quoted several anonymous diplomats who specialise in Middle Eastern affairs, reported they were particularly critical of the reluctance among western leaders, including Mr Macron, to publicly call for a ceasefire. This position is widely seen as widening the gap with the Arab world.

One diplomat said: “Everything is linked to the problem of a ceasefire: France is giving moral and political support to [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu in his conduct of the war.”

Updated: November 10, 2023, 6:58 AM