BRUSSELS, Belgium — European Union foreign ministers met Tuesday to discuss how to use the 27-nation bloc’s political clout to help diplomatic efforts to end ongoing hostilities between Israel and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.
Speaking to reporters following the ministers’ videoconference, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for the implementation of a ceasefire.
“The priority is the immediate cessation of all violence and the implementation of a ceasefire,” Borrell said, adding the statement was backed by all the bloc’s member states except Hungary.
The EU has been united in its calls for a ceasefire and the need for a political solution to end the latest conflict — now in its second week — but the nations are divided over how best to help. No firm decisions involving threats of sanctions or other measures came from the meeting.
The bloc’s 27 nations often struggle to find a common position over the conflict with some members including Germany, Austria and Slovenia firmly supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and others urging it to show greater restraint.
Over 200 Palestinians have died in the current round of fighting, including 61 children, and over 1,400 people wounded according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry; the IDF says many were terrorists, and civilian casualties were inevitable given that Hamas embeds its fighters and weaponry in residential areas. Twelve people in Israel, among them a 5-year-old boy, have been killed in rocket attacks launched from Gaza toward civilian areas in Israel. Hundreds have been injured.
Early Tuesday Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were terrorist targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian terrorists fired dozens of rockets into Israel, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides.
The EU is the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinians but holds little influence over the terrorist group Hamas or the State of Israel, despite having some trade arrangements that are favorable to the Israelis.
Pro-Palestinian critics of EU policy insist the bloc has been far too lenient when it comes to imposing sanctions on Jerusalem.
Borrell and European Council President Charles Michel both called over the past days for an end to the escalation in violence and for ensuring that civilians are protected.
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Tuesday’s meeting was aimed at working out “how best the EU can contribute to defusing the tensions, stop the escalation and stop the ongoing violence.”
On Monday, the EU called Israel’s weekend destruction of a building housing The Associated Press and other major international media “extremely worrying” and said safe working conditions for journalists were essential. Israel warned occupants to leave in advance and asserts the building was also housing Hamas military offices.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been speaking to EU chiefs, as well as other global leaders, in a bid to shore up support for Israel’s actions amid calls for a ceasefire.
On Monday German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced “solidarity” with Israel in a phone call with Netanyahu, and called for a swift end to the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in years.
“The chancellor again sharply condemned the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and assured the prime minister of the German government’s solidarity,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement after the call. “She reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against the attacks.”
Given the many civilian lives lost on both sides, the statement added, “the chancellor expressed her hope that the fighting will end as soon as possible.”
However, Dutch diplomats characterized the call differently, saying Rutter said Israel “has the right to defend itself against these attacks, but precisely because it is a strong country, it also has a responsibility to act proportionately within the bounds of international law.”