26 EU countries warn Israel against ‘catastrophic’ Rafah offensive

Joint statement by all in bloc but Hungary urges ‘humanitarian pause’ leading to ‘lasting ceasefire’ along with ‘unconditional release of all hostages’

Palestinians inspect destruction in Rafah following an Israeli airstrike on February 18, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Palestinians inspect destruction in Rafah following an Israeli airstrike on February 18, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

All European Union countries except Hungary warned Israel on Monday against launching an offensive in Rafah that they said would deepen the catastrophe of some 1.5 million Palestinians crammed into the city on the southern edge of Gaza.

“An attack on Rafah would be absolutely catastrophic … it would be unconscionable,” Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said before a meeting of foreign ministers from the 27 EU member states in Brussels.

After the talks ended, all but one of them called in a joint statement for “an immediate humanitarian pause that would lead to a lasting ceasefire, the unconditional release of all hostages and the provision of humanitarian assistance.”

The statement was issued in the name of “Foreign Ministers of 26 Member-States of the European Union” and diplomats said Hungary — a close ally of the Israeli government — was the sole country that did not sign up.

“We ask the Israeli government not to take military action in Rafah that would worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation and prevent the urgently needed provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance,” the European ministers said.

Israel is preparing to mount a ground invasion of Gaza’s southernmost city, which it has called a last bastion of Hamas control after nearly five months of fighting.

The statement echoed a declaration from the leaders of Australia, Canada and New Zealand last week, which urged a “humanitarian ceasefire,” while expressing hope for a long-term end to hostilities.

Palestinians buy supplies at the market in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

It also appeared to be in line with a US revision of a United Nations Security Council resolution that would underscore the body’s “support for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable,” according to the text seen by Reuters on Monday.

Washington has been averse to the word “ceasefire” in any UN action on the Israel-Hamas war, but the US draft text echoes language that US President Joe Biden said he used last week in conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US draft text also “determines that under current circumstances a major ground offensive into Rafah would result in further harm to civilians and their further displacement including potentially into neighboring countries.”

On Sunday, war cabinet member Benny Gantz warned that if the 130 hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacres are not freed within the next few weeks, Israel will broaden its offensive in southern Gaza and push Rafah on the Egyptian border.

But EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said it would be impossible to prevent civilian deaths.

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks to the media ahead of a Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on February 19, 2024. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD/AFP)

“We have to continue putting pressure on Israel to make them understand that there are so many people in the streets of Rafah, it will be impossible to avoid civilian casualties,” he said.

“This, certainly, will be against the respect of humanitarian law.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also called on Israel to respect humanitarian law, but said that Israel had the “right to self-defense” as it was clear that Hamas fighters were still operating from Rafah.

“The most important thing would be that Hamas would lay down its weapons,” she said.

“Over a million people went to the south of Gaza because the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) told them so. They can’t just disappear in the sky.”

On Saturday, Netanyahu pushed back on the growing calls from world leaders to avoid a ground operation in Rafah, saying doing so would mean losing the war against Hamas.

“Those who want to prevent us from operating in Rafah are essentially telling us: ‘Lose the war.’ I won’t let that happen,” he vowed at an evening press conference in Jerusalem. “We won’t capitulate to any pressure.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, February 17, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Israel has said it will draw up a plan for civilians to evacuate before it enters and believes it cannot effectively curtail Hamas without taking Rafah. At least some of the 130 hostages remaining in Gaza are thought to be in the city, after two were rescued in daring special forces raid last week. Hamas leadership is also believed to be sheltering there.

The war erupted after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on southern Israel, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 250 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid horrific acts of brutality.

Vowing to destroy Hamas and return the hostages, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign that Gaza health authorities say has left 29,000 people dead.

The figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 12,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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