EU leaders are poised to call for humanitarian corridors in Gaza and for pauses in bombardments into and out of the enclave to enable access for aid, after days of wrangling that highlighted divisions within the bloc over the Israel-Hamas conflict.
While EU leaders have strongly condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel, they have struggled to stick to the same message beyond that, with some stressing Israel’s right to self-defence and others emphasising concern about Palestinian civilians.
As leaders gather for a summit in Brussels on Thursday, diplomats and officials have spent days debating whether to call for a “humanitarian pause” or “pauses” in the plural.
A text intended as a final draft for the summit declaration includes the latter, expressing leaders’ “gravest concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza”.
It calls for “continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses”.
Thursday’s summit is the first in-person meeting of the EU’s 27 national leaders since the deadly Oct. 7 assault on Israel by Palestinian militant group Hamas, which prompted Israel to bombard and blockade Hamas-run Gaza.
Countries such as France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Ireland had endorsed calls from the United Nations for a break in the conflict for humanitarian reasons.
But others such as Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria resisted, arguing such a measure could curb Israel’s ability to defend itself and let Hamas regroup, according to diplomats.
The compromise on “pauses” in the plural was meant to signal short breaks in fighting for missions such as hostage releases or aid convoys, rather than a formal ceasefire, diplomats said.
“The European Union will work closely with partners in the region to protect civilians, provide assistance and facilitate access to food, water, medical care, fuel and shelter, ensuring that such assistance is not abused by terrorist organisations,” the text also says.
Diplomats said the text seemed to have broad acceptance among EU member countries but it was not clear whether leaders would demand any final changes before signing off on it.
EU leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have visited the Middle East to express solidarity with Israel and bolster diplomatic efforts to prevent the conflict spiralling into a regional war.
While the EU’s influence on the conflict is modest, officials fear that an escalation could have grave consequences for Europe, including a rise in tensions between communities, possible Islamist militant attacks and a large flow of refugees.
The crisis erupted with the EU already grappling with the fallout from another war in its neigbourhood – the conflict triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the summit, the leaders aim to show they will continue to support Ukraine even as they face another major crisis.
“Our meeting comes at a time of great global instability and insecurity, exacerbated most recently by developments in the Middle East,” said Charles Michel, president of the European Council of EU leaders, in an invitation letter to the summit.
“These developments require our immediate attention, without distracting us from our continued support to Ukraine.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will address the summit by video link and support for Kyiv will have first place in the summit declaration.
The EU and its member countries have provided billions of euros in assistance to Ukraine since Russian forces invaded in February last year.
But some officials and diplomats have voiced fears that Ukraine may now struggle to get the same political attention and resources from the West, particularly the United States, due to the new crisis in the Middle East.