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Why the EU can't agree on an Israel-Hamas cease-fire in Gaza

Ella Joyner in Brussels
November 13, 2023

The EU's foreign ministers have reached a consensus on several critical issues of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. But some topics, like a total cease-fire, remain divisive.

People wave Palestinian flags and hold a picture of a watermelon as they gather for a "Global South United" protest to demand freedom for Palestine on October 28, 2023 in Berlin, Germany.
European capitals have seen a number of pro-Palestinian marches in recent weeks, though many have been prohibited in Germany, for exampleImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Divisions were increasingly clear among the European Union's 27 foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday as they sought a common position on Israel's intensifying military operations in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attacks. 

The EU, which has struggled to speak with one voice on the politically divisive Israeli-Palestinian question, issued a fresh joint statement on Sunday evening.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, third left, speaks with from left, Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos, Greece's Foreign Minister Giorgos Gerapetritis, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, Ireland's Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, Belgium's Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib and Netherland's Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot.
Borrell is regarded to be more sympathetic to Palestinians than other leading EU officials, such as European Commission President Ursula von der LeyenImage: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo/picture alliance

In it, the member states called for "immediate pauses in hostilities and the establishment of humanitarian corridors," as well as the release of remaining hostages, but also re-emphasized Israel's "right to defend itself in line with international law and international humanitarian law."

The EU's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said the call for pauses in fighting was designed to allow much-needed aid to enter Gaza.

This comes as the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 11,000 people have been killed amid Israel's retaliation for the October 7 attacks and as NGOs warn of deteriorating conditions at hospitals in Gaza

"Less than 10% of what is necessary is getting through," Borrell told reporters.

Gaza: Situation 'perilous' at biggest hospital

But Sunday's statement also condemned Hamas, which the EU designates as a terrorist organization, for "the use of hospitals and civilians as human shields." Israel accuses the militant group of embedding itself within Gazan civilian infrastructure for protection. Several EU ministers, including the Czech Republic's Jan Lipavsky, echoed these comments in Brussels on Monday.

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) expert Hugh Lovatt said that Hamas had clearly "sought to protect itself from Israeli attacks by using Gaza civilian infrastructure," which was illegitimate. But he cautioned against the use of the phrase "human shield" because it could be misleading and risked absolving Israel of responsibility for attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Where the EU stands on a cease-fire

The new joint EU statement came after President Emmanuel Macron on Friday added France to the small list of EU countries — Spain, Belgium and Ireland — calling for a total cease-fire, prompting sharp rebukes from Israel.

Other European countries like Germany, which has closely backed Israel ever since the Hamas October 7 attacks, have declined to endorse a cease-fire, arguing it could benefit Hamas and undermine Israel's right to self-defense.

On Monday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters she "totally" understood the impulse to call for one "in this terrible situation where innocent children, people, women, mothers, families are not only suffering so terribly but are dying."

But such demands left essential questions unanswered, said Baerbock, following her weekend visit to the region.

"How can the demand for a cease-fire acutely and now, in this terrible situation, ensure that Israel's security is guaranteed?" she asked, also asking what would happen to the hostages Hamas had taken. 

German Foreign Minister Baerbock visits West Bank, Tel Aviv

How the EU's cease-fire stance could shift

The EU's official position has not shifted much in the past weeks, Lovatt of the ECFR told DW on Monday. However, Macron's change in tone could prove crucial, he argued.

"I suspect that French positioning will probably cause some other member states to move towards a cease-fire. But it will never convince the Germans. It will not convince the Hungarians or the Austrians," he said, referring to some of Israel's closest EU backers in the current conflict.

While it would unlikely shift the official EU position, he said signals coming from Europe were nonetheless heard in Israel and its major ally, the United States. "Israel is very aware that it probably has a clock for its operations," Lovatt said.

At some point, discussions will have to shift to a cease-fire, in Lovatt's view. While Israel had the right to defend itself and respond to Hamas' attacks, he said that ultimately, "there is no military solution in Gaza." 

"Israel can make some tactical gains killing Hamas, destroying tunnels, but militarily, it will not remove the threat of Hamas," the ECFR analyst said.

"The question is how many more thousands of Palestinian civilians need to die before Western governments make that call," Lovatt said.

Gazans with health issues struggle amid war

More EU focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

At the press conference following Monday's meeting, Borrell said he had proposed to ministers an approach to look beyond the current hostilities, calling on the EU to get far more involved, particularly "in the construction of a Palestinian state."

"We have been far too absent. We have delegated the solution to this problem to the United States," he said.

Borrell said there should be no forced displacement of the Palestinian people outside Gaza, no reduction of Gazan territory or permanent reoccupation by Israel, but equally, he said that Hamas could not be allowed to return.

"If we don't find a solution, we will experience a perpetual cycle of violence from generation to generation and funeral to funeral," the 76-year-old said.

"We need to focus on a medium and longer-term solution, a post-conflict scenario that can guarantee stability on an ongoing basis, that will make it possible to build a peace between Palestinians and Israelis and throughout the region," Borrell urged.

Edited by: Mark Hallam

This article was updated on September 14, 2023, adding additional comments from Hugh Lovatt.