27th Jan 2021

Brussels freezes talks on closer EU-Israel relations

Brussels has "paused" negotiations with Tel Aviv over a planned upgrade to EU-Israel relations, as the Palestinian death toll passed the 1,000 mark on Wednesday (14 January).

"The priority at the moment is to achieve a ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and that is what we need to concentrate on now, not the upgrade," European Commission external relations spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann told EUobserver.

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  • A bombed-out orphanage in Gaza (Photo: Oxfam)

"No activities that could be considered related to the upgrade are taking place due to the situation on the ground," Czech EU presidency spokesman Jan Sliva said.

The EU-Israel Association Council - a group headed by foreign ministers that conducts bilateral relations between Israel and the EU - announced last June that Brussels would "upgrade" relations with Tel Aviv.

EU leaders in December launched accelerated negotiations on increased diplomatic co-operation, Israeli participation in European programmes and agencies and possible Israeli integration into the European single market.

The European Commission was tasked with technical talks on participation in programmes and agencies while EU member states were to forge closer political links. The current pause in negotiations relates to the commission's "technical" talks.

The EU's ambassador to Israel, Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, also told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday that the two sides have imposed a "mutually agreed time-out" in the negotiations, Reuters reports.

"In a war situation, in a situation in which Israel is at war, using its war means in a very dramatic way, in a powerful way in Gaza, everybody realises that it is not the appropriate time to upgrade bilateral relations which normally take place in a more ...peaceful context," he said.

An Israeli diplomat pointed out that the Czech EU presidency continues to place improved EU-Irsaeli relations at the top of its agenda.

"It is only that technical work has been postponed," the contact said. "So we don't see any obstacle to the upgrade at all."

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday that he was still committed to strengthening EU-Israel ties.

"The current dramatic events in this region must not deter us. On the contrary, they emphasise the necessity of finding a peaceful solution," he said.

The vast majority of MEPs at a European Parliament debate on Gaza called for an immediate ceasefire, voicing shock at the suffering of the civilian population and deploring strikes against civilian and UN targets.

UK liberal deputy Chris Davies, who recently returned from a trip to the conflict zone, criticised the EU for not doing enough to bring a halt to the violence.

Saying Israel had "turned Gaza into Hell" and calling the Jewish state's war on the occupied territory "evil," he asked why Europe "makes allowances for Israel that we wouldn't for any other states."

His remarks came as Palestinian medical officials on Wednesday said 1,013 people have died so far, over 300 of whom are children and 76 are women, with a further 4,500 injured.

Thirteen Israelis have also been killed since fighting broke out on 27 December.

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