30th Nov 2023

EU backs Israel on 'human shields' in Gaza

  • EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (Photo:
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The EU has backed Israel in saying that its unprecedented killing of civilians in Gaza is partly due to terrorists' use of "human shields", amid intense debate on the morality of the war.

"The EU condemns the use of hospitals and civilians as human shields by Hamas," EU foreign ministers said in a statement in Brussels on Monday (12 November).

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Hamas is a Palestinian paramilitary group that rules Gaza.

It is designated as a "terrorist" entity by the EU and killed some 1,400 Israelis in a dawn pogrom on 7 October.

The EU statement also called for "immediate pauses in hostilities" to let in aid, including via "a dedicated maritime route", which could include Gaza's closest EU neighbour — Cyprus.

Israel has killed over 11,000 people in Gaza, including 8,000 children and women since 7 October in the worst loss of life in living memory for Palestinians.

But the EU stopped short of calling for an Israeli "ceasefire" on Monday, as the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) pressed their attack.

"How can the [EU] demand a ceasefire, acutely, and now in this terrible situation guarantee that Israel's security is assured?," said German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.

EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell sold the joint statement as an impressive show of European unity.

"You know how difficult it has been the last times, after the vote in the United Nations, where [EU] countries voted in different ways, to present a completely united approach," Borrell told the press, referring to a UN vote on Gaza in October.

Borrell has been among the most vocal of Israel's EU critics. "These hostilities are severely impacting hospitals and taking a horrific toll on civilians and medical staff," Borrell warned on Monday.

He is going to Israel and Palestine next week, his office also said, as well as to Qatar — the home of Hamas leaders.

Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin likewise voiced empathy for Palestinians.

"The situation in the region is at a critical point, with a catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza and continued risks of regional escalation," he said in Brussels on Monday.

For their part, the 27 EU leaders called for "pauses for humanitarian needs" at a summit on 23 October, when the Gaza death toll was passing 5,000 people.

And French president Emmanuel Macron spoke out in strident terms in defence of Gaza children in an interview with British broadcaster the BBC last weekend.

But behind the scenes, Western pressure on Israel to pause shooting has been less impressive, according to Israel's foreign minister, Eli Cohen.

"From a political point of view, we recognise that Israel has come under more pressure," he said in Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Monday.

"The pressure is not very high, but it is increasing," Cohen said.

European debate

The EU ministers met after tens of thousands of people protested against Israel's bombardment of Gaza in Brussels and London over the weekend.

Many called out the West for double standards on protecting civilians in the Ukraine war, while seeming to care less for Palestinian casualties.

The protests were peaceful, but Belgium is home to some 50,000 Jews and 800,000 Muslims and has seen a spike in antisemitism and Islamophobia since the Gaza war began.

People in the Muslim community feel the EU has given Israel a "carte blanche" in Gaza, according to one Belgian political pundit who recently spoke to EUobserver.

Many of them also don't trust Belgian media, Youssef Kobo, the Belgian expert said.

Meanwhile, the IDF has been blaming Hamas' use of human shields for the high loss of civilian life since the fighting began.

And whatever future tribunals into the war might determine, leading Arabic media, such as Al Arabiya, led with coverage of EU condemnation of Hamas on Monday instead of EU efforts to save lives, in a message that risked aggravating mistrust.

Krišjānis Kariņš, the foreign minister of Latvia, one of Israel's EU allies, also struck a different note than Ireland's Martin.

"Hamas is unfortunately using civilian infrastructure and civilians as shields against the Israel Defence Forces. So, the situation is absolutely not black and white," he said on Monday.

'Parachute aid'

Hamas hit back with a statement, accusing Borrell on Monday of lying in a "cover-up" for Israel to "commit more crimes against children and defenceless civilians," according to US news agency AP.

And all that left the Palestinian Authority (PA), which rules the West Bank, to plead for the EU and UN to start air-dropping aid to Gaza in a sign of desperation.

"I call on the United Nations and the European Union to parachute aid into the Gaza Strip, especially the north," Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said.


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