After days of discussions on how to call for a pause in the conflict to get urgently needed humanitarian aid into Gaza, EU leaders on Thursday (26 October) agreed on a call for “humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs” in Israel’s war with Hamas.
The summit was the leaders’ first in-person meeting since the deadly 7 October attack on Israel by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which prompted Israel to bombard and blockade the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
After the 5-hour-long talks that were aimed at working out the exact wording, EU leaders agreed on final summit conclusions on the Middle East that condemn Hamas’ attack and back Israel’s right to defend itself “in line with international law.”
They called for “continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs.”
Several member states made sure to emphasise the humanitarian aspect of the corridors due to fears they could be misused to provide military supplies to Hamas by third parties, according to EU diplomats.
As earlier anticipated, the EU communiqué, however, falls short of backing earlier demands from the United Nations for a ceasefire.
An earlier compromise on “pauses” in the plural was meant to signal short breaks in fighting for missions such as hostage releases or aid convoys, rather than a formal ceasefire, EU diplomats said ahead of Thursday’s talks.
The wrangling over the exact phrasing comes as EU member states have always been traditionally more split between more pro-Palestinian members such as Ireland and Spain, and staunch backers of Israel including Germany and Austria.
EU diplomats said Germany and other steadfast supporters of Israel sought to moderate any wording of the final summit communiqué that could be seen as contradictory to Israel’s right to defend itself.
“All the fantasies of truces, ceasefires, etc. have the effect of strengthening Hamas in its determination to continue its action and perpetuate this terrible terror,” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer before the talks.
His German counterpart Olaf Scholz said he was confident the Israeli army “will follow the rules that come from international law”.
Heading into the talks, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted that what was wanted in essence was “for the killing and the violence to stop so that humanitarian aid can get into Gaza, where innocent Palestinian people are suffering, and also to allow us to get EU citizens out.”
The exact number of European citizens in Gaza is still to be determined.
In the days preceding the summit, EU diplomats had warned that delays over finding the right words as the death toll mounts in Gaza are hitting the bloc’s global standing.
“We can feel that some in the world are using the circumstances to try to rally a part of the international community to attack the EU,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters before heading into the talks.
Michel said he had been “active in explaining” to counterparts in the Global South that the EU would “not have double standards, that we have fundamental principles, that we believe in the international law, in a world based on rules and fundamental principles, and we will continue, we will not give up.”
An earlier peace summit in Cairo last weekend showed a divide between Europeans and the Arab world, which has accused the Europeans of double standards over condemning Russia’s breaches of international and humanitarian law, while not doing the same with Israel’s response after the Hamas attack.
In their final summit conclusions, EU leaders stated the EU “will work closely with partners in the region to protect civilians, provide assistance and facilitate access to food, water, medical care, fuel and shelter, ensuring that such assistance is not abused by terrorist organisations.”
They also agreed that the bloc will “support the holding of an international peace conference soon,” a line which was not in the draft distributed earlier on Thursday.
The addition was based on an earlier call by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, which had been a “last-minute push, that has not been discussed in detail,” according to an EU official with knowledge of the discussion in the room.
The text also includes a reference to the EU’s initiative, dubbed the ‘Peace Day Effort’, which was presented at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September to revive the long-dormant peace process between Israel and Palestine.
However, the next meeting, initially planned for November in Belgium, had been postponed due to the unstable situation in the region.
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