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Israel’s agreement to four-hour daily pauses in fighting in Gaza is “not enough” to provide badly needed humanitarian support to the embattled enclave, European Council President Charles Michel has told The National.
Mr Michel spoke on the sidelines of the Paris Peace Forum on Friday, a day after Washington announced Israel had agreed to a daily break in the fighting. “Probably this is not enough, but it’s a first step,” he said. The most important thing for the EU states was a humanitarian pause, he added.
“We are extremely shocked by the images that we see in Gaza," he said. “It’s absolutely urgent to make sure we can fulfil our international commitments,” he added, saying there was a “moral and strategic duty” to provide humanitarian assistance.
“If you want to give a chance for a political process, it’s very important to demonstrate that the international community is effective in taking account the tragic situation of the people, women, men and children in Gaza,” Mr Michel said.
A breakthrough would give a chance for political negotiations to end the decade-long conflict, which must be based on a two-state solution, added Mr Michel.
“The best security guarantee will be a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, between Israel and its neighbours,” he said.
Arab leaders have condemned the surge in the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, who are now more than 700,000, as an obstacle to a long-lasting peace.
Speaking at a conference on Gaza in Paris on Thursday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that “the solution is to end the occupation".
Mr Michel said that he agreed that settlements represent a “big constraint.”
Settlements will “certainly” be part of the issues that must be resolved when serious discussions about a two-state solution are relaunched, according to the EU leader.
'Working towards a cease-fire'
But the focus now must be on delivering humanitarian aid, Mr Michel said.
Israel launched air strikes on or near at least three hospitals in Gaza despite Thursday's announcement in Washington of four-hour pauses implemented with three hours’ notice to allow civilians to flee.
The pauses are also meant to increase the chances of release of about 240 Israeli hostages held in the Gaza strip by Hamas since its unprecedented raid on October 7 that killed more than 1,400 people.
Israel has vowed to destroy the Palestinian militant group, proscribed as terrorist by the EU, and has killed more than 10,500 people in retaliatory bombardment in the Gaza strip, according to Palestinian authorities.
The EU is deeply divided on the Israel-Gaza conflict and so far, very few leaders have called on Israel to implement a ceasefire.
The European Council, where heads of state of the bloc’s 27 countries meet to align their positions, on October 26 issued a joint statement calling for “humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs.”
Yet at a conference on the humanitarian crisis on Gaza in Paris on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron deviated from previous language by saying that there must be an effort “to work towards a ceasefire.”
Mr Michel, a Belgian politician, speaks on behalf of the Council and reiterated its previous call for pauses.
This means a “de facto suspension of hostilities to allow humanitarian aid to be provided to the most vulnerable people in Gaza,” he said.
The EU is united in its support of Israel and its right to defend itself in line with international law against Hamas, said Mr Michel.
He has previously expressed the opinion that a total siege of Gaza is in contradiction with international law, but has declined to qualify Israel’s military operations when asked whether they are proportionate or not.
Cyprus to become humanitarian hub
The EU’s ambition is to remain a strong economic partner for Israel, the main donor for Palestine while also playing a political role in finding a solution to the conflict due to the bloc’s interest in living near a stable Middle East, said Mr Michel.
A concrete example of that commitment, he said, is the EU’s encouragement of Cyprus’s ambition to become a humanitarian hub to support Gaza.
The EU member lies about 370 kilometres from the Gaza shore and wants to send aid by ship from the port of Larnaca to south-west Gaza where the supplies would be controlled and distributed by the UN, the ICRC and the Palestinian Authority.
Speaking in Paris on Thursday, Cyprus’s President Nikos Christodoulides said he had been co-ordinating the plan with Israel, the US, EU, France, Greece, and the Netherlands.
“We are working very quickly together with the Cyprus authorities to make it happen in the short term,” Mr Michel told The National.
Setting up the proper infrastructure, including possibly a floating platform off the coast of Gaza, will take more time, he said.
In another suggestion for the region, Mr Michel said he had personally asked Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to collaborate with the EU to send grain by land to the Middle East.
The EU-supported land export route, set up after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year hampered exports via the Black Sea, could be used to benefit the people of Gaza.
Ukrainian and European teams are working on the proposal, Mr Michel said, which still needs to be “fine-tuned”.
Mr Michel said Arab countries must see Europe's commitment to the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people is strong.
“What is very important first is that the EU is, and will, remain the main donor for humanitarian assistance in Palestine, including Gaza,” he said.
Speaking on Thursday to leaders invited to the Paris conference on Gaza, which included Mr Michel, Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry dismissed Israeli announcements of evacuation corridors for civilians as “unimportant” and lambasted Israel for going “way further than self-defence.”
Mr Shoukry said that it was “strange” that his country had sent more aid – equal to more than 5,400 tonnes - than the rest of the world combined to Gaza despite Egypt’s economic challenges.
The EU “understands the very difficult situation for Egypt,” Mr Michel said when questioned about such criticism.
The EU Council has tasked the EU commission, its executive arm, to come up with proposals to deepen the bloc’s cooperation, including with financial assistance, vis-a-vis Egypt.
“Our 27 ambassadors have already started to work on a possible strengthening of our partnership with Egypt,” said Mr Michel.
"I have no doubt that Egypt is one of the countries, together with Jordan and others, which has a role to play to make possible this two-state solution."