LUXEMBOURG — The European Union’s foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement at a meeting on Monday on recommending a “humanitarian pause” to allow aid to reach Palestinians in Gaza as Israel continues its airstrikes on the besieged territory.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” last week but EU ministers have discussed what foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called a less ambitious “humanitarian pause.” Borrell stressed that while the EU cannot “decree” a pause, it can send the message that it is in favor of one.
While there is a “basic consensus,” several diplomats, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly about the meeting like others quoted in this story, stressed there is not the required unanimity. The ministers have not yet voted, Borrell said.
EU ambassadors discussed a draft text on the humanitarian pause on Monday afternoon that could be added to the final text that leaders will endorse at the EU summit later this week, but they could not find a compromise even though a majority was in favor, according to two diplomats familiar with the discussion. An agreement around the language could come at the next meeting of ambassadors on Wednesday, said one of the diplomats.
The move to endorse a “humanitarian pause” reflected increasing alarm within the EU about Palestinian civilians in Gaza after two weeks of bombardment by Israel in the wake of an attack by Hamas that killed 1,400 people. According to Gaza’s Hamas-led Health Ministry, more than 5,000 Palestinians have died from Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza.
Before the Israel-Hamas war, more than 60 percent of Palestinians in Gaza relied on international aid, according to the U.N., and more than 1.4 million Palestinians have been displaced since the start of the war.
Israel imposed a “complete siege” on Gaza after the start of its war with Hamas, cutting off power, water and fuel to the 2.2 million inhabitants of the blockaded territory, of which Israel has controlled the air, land and sea borders since 2007, strictly limiting the movement of goods and people. The ongoing blockade has pushed Palestinians in Gaza to the brink of starvation, Cindy McCain, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program, told POLITICO on Sunday.
A lot more aid needs to be delivered, she said.
So far, EU leaders have emphasized the right of Israel of self-defense in line with international law, as well as the need for a two-state solution and protecting civilians, but without calling for an end or pause to hostilities.
Borrell and the diplomats explained it will be up to EU leaders gathering later this week to define a common line.
Speaking to reporters at the end of the meeting, Borrell explained the difference between a ceasefire and a pause. A pause means “that something ceases temporarily, but then continues, so of course it’s a less ambitious objective than a ceasefire, which means a full agreement between the parties,” he said.
At the start of the meeting many countries — including the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland and Luxembourg — called for an initiative to allow aid to reach Palestinians trapped in Gaza with varying language ranging from “humanitarian pause” to “ceasefire” or “humanitarian corridors.”
Others sounded more skeptical: “We can’t stem the humanitarian disaster if terrorism from Gaza continues. Therefore, fighting terrorism is essential,” the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, told reporters.
Two diplomats said the mixed language of humanitarian pause, humanitarian ceasefire and ceasefire left the group without a clear decision. A third diplomat was skeptical the group would achieve unanimity, pointing to countries like Austria which don’t seem convinced about speaking out in favor of a humanitarian pause.
Humanitarian aid has started to reach Gaza but it’s not enough, Borrell told reporters before the meeting in Luxembourg. “The first day, 20 trucks were allowed to come in — 20. Yesterday, there were about 20 more. But in normal times, without the war, 100 trucks entered into Gaza every day. So, it is clear that 20 [trucks], it is not enough,” he said.
Both sides, Hamas and Israel, need to agree on a pause, and there is an obligation by both parties to ensure aid reaches Palestinians, Janez Lenarčič, the European commissioner for crisis management, who was called to the meeting by ministers, told POLITICO.
“All involved are under international legal obligations, to provide for safe and unhindered access for humanitarian aid all involved,” he said.