Saturday

13th Apr 2024

EU sends mixed message as Gaza death toll mounts

  • The EU flag - the union's position on Israel's ground attack is unclear (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The Czech EU presidency this weekend retracted its support for Israel amid the ground attack on Gaza, while France switched its criticism from Israel to Hamas.

The Czech Republic on Saturday (3 January) published a statement on behalf of the EU, saying the ground assault was "more defensive than offensive." But it pulled the line on Sunday, blaming it on a youthful mistake by its spokesman, Jiri Potuznik.

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"Even the undisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians," the second communique said.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who last week complained about Israel's disproportionate use of force, laid the lion's share of blame on Hamas in an interview on Monday.

"Hamas, which decided to break the truce and resume rocket fire against Israel, bears a heavy responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinians," he told Lebanese newspapers An Nahar, As Safir and L'Orient le Jour.

The Czech EU presidency and Mr Sarkozy are leading EU efforts to broker a ceasefire and inject humanitarian aid to Gaza, each sending a separate diplomatic mission to the region this week.

The Czech delegation - comprising French, Swedish and European Commission diplomats as well as top EU envoy Javier Solana - arrived in Egypt on Sunday night and will visit Israel and Palestine later on Monday.

Mr Sarkozy lands in Egypt on Monday and is also to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories later the same day, at the risk of stealing the Czech Republic's thunder as the first world leader to personally travel to the Middle East since the war broke out.

Mr Sarkozy's special aide, Henri Guaino, told Le Figaro "there is no competition" between the two delegations. But other French politicians betrayed the feeling that the Czech Republic is not up to the job.

"I think he [Mr Sarkozy] is the only one capable of taking an initiative like this," French budget minister Eric Woerth said on Europe 1 radio on Sunday.

The melee of EU diplomats will also be joined on Monday by Tony Blair, the former British leader and current special envoy of the Middle East quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia).

Israeli officials during the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 complained that the EU sent too many emissaries to enable a coherent dialogue.

The EU's chances of brokering a ceasefire have been hampered by the US, which on Saturday blocked a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution as the Bush administration counts down its last days in office.

The Hamas government on Monday held out an olive branch by agreeing to send a negotiating team to Egypt, at the same time as the Czech and French delegations arrive in the country. But any EU talks with the group will be complicated by its inclusion on the EU terrorist register.

Anger in Europe

Outside the confines of high diplomacy, ordinary Europeans also voiced their opinions on the conflict this weekend as tens of thousands took part in demonstrations stretching from London to Istanbul.

Pro-Palestinian marchers took to the streets of the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Austria, Sweden, Poland, Greece and Cyprus, with reports of skirmishes outside Israeli embassies.

In Paris, 20,000 people marched in support of the Palestinians on Saturday, while a crowd of 12,000 showed its solidarity with Israel on Sunday.

Pro-Palestinian protests also took place in Turkey, Iran, Syria, India and Lebanon, with Israel tightening security on its northern border amid fears that Lebanese militants Hezbollah may fire rockets in the coming days.

Public opinion in Israel firmly supports the Gaza assault. A poll by Maagar Mochot for Israel radio on Sunday said 81 percent of people back the incursion, even though 39 percent do not believe it will bring peace.

The latest reports on Monday morning indicated that 517 Palestinians - mostly civilians - have died so far, with over 2,500 injured. Four Israeli civilians and one soldier have also been killed.

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