EU seeks Gaza role despite conflicting views

The Czech EU Presidency yesterday (4 January) admitted a blunder which seemingly legitimised the Israeli land offensive in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, at a time when other EU leaders condemned the escalation of violence and called for an immediate ceasefire.

Israel launched a land attack on Gaza on Saturday (3 January) in the framework of its 'Cast Lead' operation, launched on 27 December 2008. Before sending in tanks and ground troops, Israel conducted air attacks against the Gaza positions of Hamas, which has been pounding Israeli settlements with mortars and makeshift 'Kassam' rockets, killing civilians and causing panic. Israel also closed all border crossing points to Gaza and bombed tunnels bringing food and other commodities from Egypt. Journalists are prevented from entering Gaza.

Last June, Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-month ceasefire. The uneasy calm was periodically violated by armed factions in Gaza, which launched rockets at Israel's border settlements. Israel responded by periodically suspending shipments of supplies into Gaza. In November and early December, Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks before unilaterally announcing the formal end of the truce. The Israeli public and government subsequently gave Defence Minister Ehud Barak freedom to respond.

The recent Israeli attacks, which have already brought about 500 deaths and wounded scores more, especially civilians, sparked widespread protests throughout the Muslim world as well as in Western capitals. Many condemned the West for its apparent inability to react. Outgoing US President George W. Bush blamed Hamas for the developments, while President-elect Barack Obama refrained from reacting before his inauguration on 20 January.

Amid opposition from the US, the UN Security Council failed on 3 January to adopt a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas militants.

A Czech Presidency spokesperson on Friday (2 January) described the Israeli land incursion into the Palestinian territory of Gaza as a "defensive, not offensive" operation. This was immediately seized upon by the world press as a sign of EU disunity over the conflict as the bloc's former presidency holder, France, had already condemned the attack and called for an immediate ceasefire.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg yesterday moved to clarify the words of his spokesperson and said that "everyone is making mistakes". But the blunder did little to assuage fears of a difficult EU presidency ahead (see EurActiv Links Dossier on the Czech Presidency). Schwarzenberg is renowned for his pro-Israeli stance and was also quoted as defending the Israeli military operation.

"Launching land operations by the Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip is not surprising, there were indications that Israel had been considering this step. But even the indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians," the official Czech Presidency position reads.

At the earlier stage just before the land offensive, EU leaders had labelled the attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas (which controls Gaza) "unacceptable" and described Israel's retaliation as "disproportionate". After the launch of the ground assault, European heavyweights such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for an immediate ceasefire, including an end to Hamas rocket attacks against Israel.

Dutch also out of tune

But the confusion did not end there, with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende also showing sympathy for Israel’s moves, arguing that the offensive could not be condemned as long as Hamas continued to fire rockets.

"Condemning Israel is pointless because both parties have to be addressed," he said in an interview aired yesterday on Dutch television.

Institutions in hibernation

The developments took the EU by surprise, as the European institutions traditionally hibernate over the winter recess. The short war in Georgia in August 2008 was similarly unexpected, although on that occasion the French EU Presidency quickly took the lead.

In what is widely seen as a result of a lack of coordination, two separate EU visits to the region are now expected, the first led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and the second by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Czech delegation includes French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, his Swedish colleague Carl Bildt (representing the future EU presidency) and EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The EU mission was due to start late on Sunday (4 January) in Cairo, followed by meetings today in Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. From there, they will go to the West Bank town of Ramallah to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Sarkozy will also attend the meetings with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Sarkozy will travel to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, before heading to Jerusalem to meet Ehud Olmert. On Tuesday, he travels to Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad and to Lebanon to visit French troops serving in a UN force in south Lebanon.

The Times of London wrote that Sarkozy's Middle East visit showed that the "hyperactive Super Sarko" would not be ending his stint as President of Europe any time soon, despite the Czechs' assumption of the EU helm.

Emergency aid

The EU, which is the largest donor to the Palestinians, announced it would provide an additional three million euros to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

About 1.5 million people are "crammed into an area that is just over 1% the size of Belgium," EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said yesterday. "They rely on supplies from outside for their survival."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Gaza offensive had been "unavoidable" but insisted Israel would not open a new front in the north, a veiled reference to tensions with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Olmert said he had ordered the army to be "extremely alert" in case "someone [...] thinks that this is his opportunity to take advantage" of the conflict in Gaza.

Israeli spokesperson Avi Pazner hailed the Czech position, describing Israel's ground operation as "more defensive than offensive". "We do intend to continue this operation until we manage to silence these missiles and rockets and completely change the security situation in the south of our country," added Pazner.

Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Authority's envoy to the EU, said Europe's credibility was on the line in the drive to reach a ceasefire and suggested the 27-nation EU should consider sanctions. "There must be an international initiative and the visit of the European delegation and of President Sarkozy offers the best prospect" for this, Shahid told Europe 1.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa on Sunday sharply criticised some European politicians, who defended Israel's actions as having been taken in self-defence. "We are hearing that there are people who say that this is a war of self-defence. This we reject with utmost decisiveness," Mussa said, while also denouncing the failure of the UN Security Council late Saturday to agree on an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

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