EU ministers back new sanctions regime against Hamas

Some countries also want to ban extremist Israeli settlers from their territory in the hope of keeping two-state solution alive, diplomats say

The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks next to Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski ahead of the OSCE meeting in Skopje, North Macedonia, November 29, 2023. Reuters
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Foreign ministers from France, Italy and Germany gained EU support on Monday for proposed new sanctions against Palestinian militant group Hamas in response to the October 7 attack on southern Israel.

The three countries are calling for further sanctions against the group, which was added to the EU terror list in 2003. Officials said the push had gained full support from the 27 members.

The bloc on Friday issued targeted sanctions for the first time against two of Hamas's senior military commanders to its terror blacklist, linking them directly to the October 7 attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people.

“We must go further and allow additional individual designations,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said as she discussed the proposal on arrival at a meeting with her EU counterparts in Brussels.

The proposal aims to deprive Hamas of funding, weapons, infrastructure and political support outside Gaza. Hamas political officials are present in a number of Arab countries, including Qatar and Lebanon.

It is important to show the EU's commitment in fighting Hamas and solidarity with Israel, the three European countries said in a letter to the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell asking for a new EU sanctions regime.

The aim is also to “delegitimise the false narrative of Hamas as 'defender of the (just) Palestinian cause' and 'representative of the Palestinian people'”, an EU diplomat told The National.

More calls for pauses

EU foreign ministers are expected to reaffirm the bloc's call for “pauses” in the conflict in Gaza, a position the bloc's 27 leaders agreed on in October. Mr Borrell has made it clear that he thinks a ceasefire is necessary but there has been no consensus so far for such a call.

The prime ministers of four EU countries – Spain, Belgium, Ireland and Malta – wrote to EU Council President Charles Michel, asking for a “lasting humanitarian ceasefire”.

“Two months since hostilities broke out, the death toll, the level of destruction and the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip are alarming,” read the letter seen by The National.

Israel's military response to the October 7 attacks has been to seek to drive Hamas out of the enclave with intense bombardment and ground raids. So far the operation has killed more than 18,000 Palestinians, according to local authorities.

Latest from Israel-Gaza war – in pictures

Mr Borrell, a Spanish politician, said he was “unhappy” with the US veto of an Arab-drafted resolution calling for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council on Friday as he arrived at the Brussels meeting. “All the prospects are really, really bleak in Gaza,” said Mr Borrell.

The EU has also started considering retaliatory measures against extremist Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, where violence has flared in parallel to the war in Gaza.

The perception among several countries, including Ireland, Belgium and France, is that these acts of violence undermine the long-term prospect of a two-state solution.

At least 249 Palestinians have been killed since October 7 in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, according to the UN.

That figure includes 239 killed by Israeli forces, eight by Israeli settlers and another two by either the army or settlers. In parallel, four Israelis, including three soldiers, have been killed in the West Bank and another four in West Jerusalem, including one by Israeli forces who misidentified him.

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib told reporters that she would ask her counterparts to apply a travel ban across Schengen territory.

In the absence of consensus, EU countries can apply their own restrictions – an option that Ms Colonna said that Paris was considering.

“France is thinking of adopting national measures,” Ms Colonna told reporters. “The situation in the West Bank is worrying us, in particular because of the too numerous cases of violence committed by extremist settlers”, she said.

Ireland's Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said his country was open to independently apply travel restrictions but that working with Europe would "have more impact".

"We want to push that the EU should do it as an entity notwithstanding the challenges that it presents," he said.

“The level of violence that is now being used in the West Bank by settlers also runs the risk of provoking a further implosion in the West Bank, which is the last thing we need right now."

Discussions at EU level to target extremist Israeli settlers gained traction after the US decided last week to ban visas to Israeli settlers who “undermine peace” in the West Bank. There are 700,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank.

The impact of a ban on Israeli extremists is not expected to be significant due to previous Israeli governments' support of illegal settlers. Diplomats say that the aim is to symbolically reaffirm the EU's desire for a two-state solution.

But how the EU could stop some Israelis from accessing its territory is open to question.

Countries that are party to the Schengen agreement, which also includes non-EU countries such as Switzerland, can introduce alerts on people in the Schengen Information System.

EU countries reluctant to take measures against Israelis, who have visa-free access to the EU, may be influenced by the US' position, an EU diplomat said last week.

“The US position may help create a strong traction in European debates,” they said.

Updated: December 11, 2023, 8:08 PM