Divisions were increasingly clear among the EU's 27 foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday as they sought a common position on Israel's intensifying military operations in Gaza after Hamas' October 7 attack.
The EU, which has struggled to speak with one voice on the politically divisive Israeli-Palestinian question, issued a fresh joint statement on Sunday evening.
In it, the member states called for "immediate pauses in hostilities and the establishment of humanitarian corridors" as well as the release of remaining hostages, but also re-emphasized Israel's "right to defend itself in line with international law and international humanitarian law."
Humanitarian situation perilous
The EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the call for pauses in fighting was designed to allow much-needed aid to enter Gaza.
This comes as the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 11,000 people have been killed amid Israel's retaliation for the October 7 attacks, and as NGOs warn of deteriorating conditions at hospitals in Gaza.
"Less than 10% of what is necessary is getting through," Borrell told reporters.
But Sunday's statement also condemned Hamas, which the EU designates as a terrorist organization, for "the use of hospitals and civilians as human shields." Israel accuses the militant group of embedding itself within Gazan civilian infrastructure for protection. A number of EU ministers echoed these comments in Brussels on Monday, including the Czech Republic's Jan Lipavsky.
Full cease-fire still divisive
The new joint EU statement came after President Emmanuel Macron on Friday added France to the small list of EU countries – Spain, Belgium and Ireland – calling for a full cease-fire, prompting sharp rebukes from Israel.
Other European countries like Germany, which has closely backed Israel ever since Hamas October 7 attacks, have declined to back a cease-fire, arguing it could benefit Hamas and undermine Israel's right to self-defense.
On Monday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters she "totally" understood the impulse to call for one "in this terrible situation where innocent children, people, women, mothers, families are not only suffering so terribly, but are dying."
But such demands left important questions unanswered, said Baerbock, following her weekend visit to the region.
"How can the demand for a ceasefire acutely and now, in this terrible situation, ensure that Israel's security is guaranteed?," she asked, also asking what would happen to the hostages Hamas had taken.
Macron hardens tone
The EU's official position has not shifted much in the past weeks, Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told DW on Monday. However, Macron's change in tone could prove important, he argued.
"I suspect that French positioning will probably cause some other member states to move towards a cease-fire. But it will never convince the Germans. It will not convince the Hungarians or the Austrians," he said, referring to some of Israel's closest EU backers in the current conflict.
While it would unlikely shift the official EU position, he said signals coming from Europe were nonetheless heard in Israel and its major ally, the United States. "Israel is very aware that it probably has a clock for its operations," Lovatt said.
At some point, discussions will have to shift to a cease-fire, in Lovatt's view. While Israel had the right to defend itself and respond to Hamas' attacks, he said that ultimately "there is no military solution in Gaza."
"Israel can make some tactical gains killing Hamas, destroying tunnels, but militarily it will not remove the threat of Hamas," the ECFR analyst said.
"The question is how many more thousands of Palestinian civilians need to die before Western governments make that call," Lovatt said.
What comes next?
At the press conference following Monday's meeting, Borrell said he had proposed to ministers an approach to look beyond the current hostilities, calling on the EU to get far more involved particularly "in the construction of a Palestinian state."
"We have been far too absent. We have delegated the solution to this problem to the United States," he said.
Borrell said there should be no forced displacement of the Palestinian people outside Gaza, no reduction of Gazan territory or permanent reoccupation by Israel, but equally he said that Hamas could not be allowed to return.
"If we don't find a solution we will experience a perpetual cycle of violence from generation to generation and funeral to funeral," the 76-year-old said.
"We need to focus on a medium and longer term solution, a post-conflict scenario that can guarantee stability on an ongoing basis, that will make it possible to build a peace between Palestinians and Israelis and throughout the region," Borrell urged.
Edited by: Mark Hallam