What the EU stands for on Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Le Grand Continent - Prior to his trip to the Middle East, the EU High Representative Josep Borrell published an article in the Grand Contient on what the EU proposes regarding the dramatic humanitarian crisis currently happening in Gaza and to put an end to the vicious cycle of violence.

A multitude of crises surrounds Europe. On our eastern border, the fire of war has been burning for almost two years. The Ukrainian people, with strong European support, have been fighting with great bravery but the prospect of victory over Russia remains distant.   

On 7 October, war flared up once again in the Middle East. The appalling terrorist attack by Hamas, which we immediately condemned in the strongest possible terms, reignited a cycle of violence that escalated into a humanitarian tragedy in Gaza.

Faced with the war against Ukraine, Europe demonstrated unity and quickly lived up to its responsibility. The EU has supported Ukraine economically and militarily, and we will continue to do so as long as it takes. 

The two conflicts are very different in their causes and actors. However, they are also interconnected. Mainly because we are suspected of applying double standards regarding international law between Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, particularly from countries of the so-called Global South. By our words and deeds, we need to prove this accusation false. 

Europe’s influence in the world rests primarily on our soft power. We have taken steps to strengthen our defence capabilities and we have a powerful economy, but we are not yet a hard power. Our global role stems principally from how consistently we defend universal principles and values.

We Europeans must be among the keepers of international and humanitarian law. This is why our partners in the world—and our rivals—are closely following the positions we take on the dramatic developments in the Middle East. 

The war in Gaza is the outcome of a collective political and moral failure, for which the Israeli and Palestinian people are paying a high price. This price will continue to increase if we fail to act. 

It stems from a failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. For decades, the international community has formally committed to the two-State solution, but without putting in place a roadmap to achieve it. 

The substance of the Israeli-Palestinian question is a national problem: that of two peoples who have the right to exist on the same land. There is therefore a need to share this land. Thirty years ago, with the Oslo Accords, we had an agreement on how to share it. But it has not been implemented. Meanwhile, in both camps, the forces of denial grew continuously under the hubris of some and the desperation of others.

Violence has increased. The figures are appalling, and not just in the latest terrifying attack by Hamas against Israel and the Israeli response. Already before 7 October, the number of dead and wounded  was much too high. 

The illegal settlement in the West Bank and violence against Palestinians have been increasing with impunity – and it has become even more brutal after 7 October. 

Thirty years ago, there were 270,000 settlers in the West Bank. Now there are more than 700,000. And the Palestinian territory has been divided into an archipelago of unconnected areas, making it much more difficult to implement the two-state solution requested by the international community for 76 years.

Last year, in the West Bank, 154 Palestinians were killed and 20 Israelis. This year, the number is already up to almost 400 Palestinians and about 30 Israelis. In Palestine, the total lack of perspective has led to the marginalisation of moderate forces to the benefit of radicals driven by hatred.

Because of the Abraham Accords, many believed that the Israeli-Palestinian issue could be circumvented even as the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate.   

This illusion has contributed to the fire of hatred. On the Israeli side, by extremist forces in the West Bank determined to put an end to the Palestinian question through submission or exile. On the Palestinian side, by Islamist extremists who want to destroy Israel and threaten the West. 

The barbarism of Hamas against Israeli civilians on 7 October was absolutely unjustifiable and inexcusable. This was an attack like no other, and it provoked in Israël profound shock and existential fears. But as Barack Obama said, “how Israel prosecutes this fight against Hamas matters”. 

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained in 2011 that the clashes in Gaza had a predictable rhythm: “Hamas would provoke, Israel would respond militarily, and the international community would wring its hands”. With their overreaction, the Israelis were losing the support of the international community. This is how it happened in 2011; and now, in 2023, we are coming to the same place.

The military strategy of Israel has to abide by international law, including the law that seeks to avoid, to every extent possible, the death and suffering of civilians. Cutting off water, food, electricity and fuel to an entire besieged civilian population is not acceptable. The scale of the bombing is also extremely concerning.

In the short term, the priority is to break the vicious cycle of violence. This is not going to be easy because the human tragedy in Israel was unprecedented. US President Biden has asked Israel “not to be blinded by rage”. The best friends of Israel are not those who push for revenge, but those who push for constraint. 

According to the health authorities in Gaza, there are already more than eleven thousand victims, about half of them children. A military strategy that ignores the human costs for civilians is not going to work because it risks making a future peace between Palestinians and Israelis almost impossible. Yet peace is the only real long-term guarantee for the security of Israel.  

In the immediate future, we must avoid a spill over of the conflict in the region. With our US allies and regional partners, we are constantly reaching out to all actors in the region to try to prevent it. 

In parallel, we must work on a de-escalation in Gaza and a humanitarian solution. All EU Member States back immediate pauses in hostilities. Humanitarian pauses, cease-fire, truces… the name does not really matter, what matters is to limit the suffering of the Palestinian civilian populations and Israeli hostages. 

We need to ensure that a flow of humanitarian aid in quantities that meet the needs of the civilian population, including fuel, enters Gaza each day. There is already a shortage of food and the situation is especially dire in Gaza’s hospitals. According to the World Health Organization, 20 out of the 36 hospitals in Gaza have stopped functioning due to a lack of fuel, without which the distribution of clean water and electricity is impossible. 

According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs, 1 an average of 40 trucks entered each day since the reopening of the Rafah crossing, which is about 20% of what it used to be before the war,. Transit capacities need to be increased or more border crossings opened. Another possibility is establishing a maritime corridor to supply Gaza with humanitarian aid via the Mediterranean Sea, as proposed by Cyprus. The EU is currently exploring the practicalities of this plan.  

We must also establish safe corridors for the wounded, the sick and foreign nationals, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) must get access to the hostages held by Hamas, whose release must be immediate and unconditional. 

Once the humanitarian situation is consolidated, it will be necessary to move from humanitarian aid to politics. Our efforts will have to concentrate on a medium and long-term solution. A plan for a permanent stabilization that allows for the building of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the entire region. 

At the Foreign Affairs Council of 13 November, I proposed to the ministers a set of principles that should guide the EU’s actions on Gaza. Principles we need to pursue in collaboration with our regional and international partners. 

They can be summarised in three Yes’s and three No’s.

No to the forced displacement of the Palestinian people. There cannot be an expulsion of Palestinians into other countries. 

No to the amputation of the territory of Gaza or its reoccupation by Israel. There must not be a reduction of Gaza’s territory, permanent control of Gaza by the Israeli Defence Force, nor a return of Hamas to govern Gaza.  

No to the dissociation of Gaza from the overall Palestinian issue. Our objective must be the resolution to the Palestinian issue as a whole.

Yes to the installation of an interim Palestinian authority in Gaza, under terms of reference and legitimacy defined by a unanimous and unambiguous resolution of the UN Security Council and guaranteed by it. We can think of a renewable resolution that encourages the two sides to reach an agreement, first for Gaza but then also for the West Bank. 

Yes to a stronger involvement of Arab states if they agree, trusted by both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. Currently Arab states are not ready to discuss the day after the war. Yet, to achieve a lasting solution we need their commitment, which cannot be only financial. They must be certain that their involvement will not be an end in itself, but a step on a clear path towards a Palestinian state.

Finally, yes to a greater involvement of the European Union in the region.

We must help build a full sovereign Palestinian state, capable of restoring the dignity of the Palestinians and of making peace with Israel and  help guarantee the security of both, Israel and Palestine. 

We need to work with our regional partners towards a peace conference, to implement the two-state solution. The situation on the ground has certainly made this solution more difficult to realise now than thirty years ago, but it remains the only viable way to bring peace to the region. Therefore, this has to be our goal and our commitment. Otherwise, we will enter into a spiral of violence perpetuated from generation to generation, from funeral to funeral.

We Europeans, not only out of self-interest, but also out of our moral and political responsibility, have to reinforce our commitment to achieving peace between Israel and Palestine. A significant part of the EU’s future global role, and in particular our relations with many countries of the so-called Global South, will depend on our commitment to help solve this conflict.