'More questions than answers' as EU and Middle East partners discuss postwar Gaza

Statements by Spain and Belgium's prime ministers at Rafah crossing triggered diplomatic dispute with Israel

A Palestinian man surveys the damage inside an apartment in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, following weeks of Israeli bombardment.  AFP
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Senior European officials will be faced with “more questions than answers” when they sit down with counterparts from the Mediterranean region and the Gulf at a meeting in Barcelona on Monday to discuss the future of postwar Gaza, officials have said.

The war has made it clear that a two-state solution is more urgent than ever but how to achieve that objective remains unclear.

“There are more questions than answers about what the day after [the war] will look like. But we have to have a plan,” a senior EU official said at a briefing with journalists.

The EU's External Action Service hopes to have a plan ready to present to the bloc's foreign ministers at a meeting next month.

The official said Israel chose not to be present at Monday's forum of the Union for the Mediterranean despite being one of its 42 members.

Chaired by the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the gathering will be attended by number of foreign ministers from the EU in addition to 15 Mediterranean countries, including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.

Mr Borrell has also extended an invitation to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.

He represents a ministerial group mandated by the Arab League and the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation at a November 11 summit in Riyad to reach out to the international community to work on a solution to the Israel-Gaza conflict.

The group, which has already made stops in Beijing, Paris and London, includes foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey and Palestine.

Arab leaders have reportedly told their European counterparts they do not envision discussing the future of Gaza with the current Israeli government, which has shown little interest in a two-state solution and is the most right-wing in the country's history.

The Palestinian Authority told Mr Borrell during a visit to the region last week they were ready to take over the area with international backing once the war is over, EU sources said.

Israel has said the war will continue until it Hamas is eradicated from the enclave.

What role for the Palestinian Authority?

However, it is unlikely the current leaders of the Palestinian Authority, widely viewed as ageing and corrupt, would receive western support.

It is understood Arab leaders expressed similar concerns to their EU counterparts about the Palestinian Authority's legitimacy. Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in 2007, one year after it won the last legislative Palestinian election.

For the EU, the Palestinian Authority remains however the only entity that can govern Gaza once hostilities end, with a possible “transition period in between, in which the UN should have a clear role”, said the EU official. Hamas is listed as a terror organisation by the EU, the US and Israel.

Yet what role the UN would play in Gaza remains an open question. A military presence in the same style as its 45-year deployment in southern Lebanon to guard the border with Israel is unlikely. Israel's own lack of clarity about what it wants in Gaza further complicates discussions.

“They don’t have a clear position inside the government of Israel,” said the EU official. “Depending on who you talk to, you get different answers on [what] the day after should look like.” Few expect Israel's current government to survive after the war due to the security failures on October 7.

In calling for a two-state solution and opposing the permanent displacement of Gaza's population, the EU has so far aligned itself with the US.

There is widespread recognition within the bloc that the US, not Europe, is the most important diplomatic player. “Without the US, you can do nothing in the Middle East,” said the EU official.

But some EU countries have started showing signs of impatience with Israel after strong initial support following the unprecedented Hamas attacks on October 7 that killed 1,200 Israelis.

Spain and Belgium's prime ministers triggered a diplomatic row with Israel on Friday after calling for a ceasefire during a visit to the Rafah border crossing. They highlighted the suffering of Palestinian civilians under incessant Israeli bombardment, which has killed more than 14,000 people in the past seven weeks, according to local authorities.

Israel's Foreign Minister Eli Cohen condemned what he described as “false claims” and accused both countries of supporting terrorism.

The US has threatened to issue sanctions against illegal Israeli settlers who have stepped up attacks on Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, an option which is currently not under discussion in Brussels.

Nearly 80 per cent of the population of the Gaza Strip, or 1.7 million people, has been displaced in the past seven weeks of Israeli bombardment, which researchers believe has destroyed around half of its northern area.

A temporary, four-day truce is currently in place but Israel has vowed to continue until its objectives are met.

“What's next? More of the same? We need to give a political horizon [to the conflict] or nothing will change – or it will change for the worse,” said the EU official.

The UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says the temporary truce is not enough.

It has called on Israel to open more crossing points and for more fuel to enter the Gaza Strip so humanitarian workers can deliver aid and water pumps can be switched on.

More than one million people are living in cramped and squalid conditions in UN shelters, some of which have only one toilet for 260 people and a single shower for 700, Marta Lorenzo of UNRWA told The National.

There is a 45 per cent increase in diarrhoea cases compared to last year and skin diseases are proliferating, she said.

For the population to heal in the long-term, we need more than the absence of conflict”, said Ms Lorenzo.

“We have been in crisis mode for 16 years. There were maybe periods with no conflict but it was also not peace.”

Gaza's two million people will have to be looked after once the war ends. Who will do that remains to be seen.

Updated: November 26, 2023, 10:00 AM