Wednesday June 19, 2024

Hamas attack prompts EU to review aid payments to Palestinians

Published : 13 Oct 2023, 21:50

Updated : 14 Oct 2023, 04:13

  By enr correspondents/dpa
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, delivers a speech in the European Parliament. Photo: Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa.

The European Union is trying to regroup on the issue of aid to the Palestinian people. There is consensus on the following points: support for the Palestinian National Authority is to continue, and Israel must defend itself but respect international law.

On Saturday, Hamas militants stormed Israel’s border around the Gaza enclave and launched attacks on civilian and military targets, leaving more than 1,300 dead. Israel has responded with artillery and air strikes, and Gaza officials estimate more than 1,530 Palestinian casualties after five days of ferocious fighting.

On Monday evening, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had to qualify announcements on the freezing of development assistance payments. Contrary to EU Neighbourhood Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi’s initial announcement on Monday that all payments would be suspended immediately, the commission corrected itself by announcing it would review aid payments to the Palestinians.

The bloc had planned to support the Palestinian people with €1.18 billion ($1.24 billion) for the period 2021 to 2024, a commission press release said.

Commission representatives said it had been agreed not to disburse any funds until the completion of the aid review.

In any case, there were no payments foreseen at the moment and the review would not concern humanitarian assistance for Palestinians, the press release stated.

“Our humanitarian support to the Palestinian people is not in question. Yet it is important that we carefully review our financial assistance for Palestine,” von der Leyen said. “EU funding has never and will never go to Hamas or any terrorist entity.”

The United States, the EU and Israel designate Hamas as a terrorist group.

On Wednesday, von der Leyen declared that Hamas’s killing of Israeli civilians was a cold-blooded act of war and reflected an “ancient evil.” She said: “We have to be clear in defining this kind of horror. And there can only be one response to it. Europe stands with Israel. And we fully support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Von der Leyen visited Israel on Friday, in a show of solidarity alongside other high-profile visitors German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.

MAJORITY OF EU COUNTRIES AGAINST FREEZING AID FOR PALESTINIAN PEOPLE

EU foreign ministers held emergency talks on Tuesday after the surprise attack by Hamas and as Israel unleashed a reprisal bombing campaign of Gaza. During their informal consultations, an overwhelming majority of EU countries rejected a proposed freeze on payments to the Palestinian Authority, said the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

“Not all the Palestinian people are terrorists,” Borrell said after the talks, which were held in Oman and via videoconference. “A collective punishment against all Palestinians will be unfair, and unproductive. It will be against our interest and against the interest of peace.”

France was “not in favour of suspending aid that directly benefits the Palestinian people,” the French Foreign Ministry said. France contributed €95 million in aid to the Palestinians last year.

Acting Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares criticised Várhelyi's initial response. He also regretted the EU’s aid review as it seemed to imply that the bloc had been financing a terrorist organization “for years.” He stressed that “there is no evidence that this funding has not been used for the purposes for which it is intended.”

On Tuesday, Germany's Baerbock called for sustained humanitarian aid for the Palestinian territories, a day after Berlin said it was suspending development assistance.

She also urged the Palestinian Authority to distance itself “from this terror” after the Hamas assault on Israel, adding that “it cannot be justified. As the Palestinian Authority you have a duty, also to your own people.”

On Thursday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said all development aid with the Palestinian Territories was being put under review.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the review was a result of the new circumstances and that “there should be no misuse of these funds.”

The United States said on Tuesday it welcomed EU support for continuing development aid to the Palestinian people.

“We have made very clear that we do not have any grievance with the Palestinian people,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

EU OPPOSES TOTAL SIEGE OF GAZA, SAYS BORRELL

EU foreign ministers also urged Israel not to cut “water, food, or electricity” to Gaza and called for humanitarian corridors for those trying to flee the territory, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said. The European ministers insisted on the need for “respect of international humanitarian law,” Borrell added.

“Israel has the right to defend [itself] but it has to be done accordingly with international law, humanitarian law, and some decisions are contrary to this international law,” Borrell told journalists in Muscat.

Borrell had invited Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his Palestinian counterpart Riyad al-Maliki to Tuesday's emergency talks. Later, Borrell said that neither of them took up an invitation to address the EU meeting.

EU AND ARAB GULF STATES DISCUSS REGIONAL IMPACT

The EU the and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) called on Tuesday for sustained aid for the Palestinian territories following concerns that it could be axed after the Hamas attack on Israel. The GCC is a regional union comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Foreign ministers from the two blocs were meeting in Muscat.

Fears of a regional conflagration have surged amid expectations of a looming Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, the crowded enclave from where Hamas launched its land, air and sea attack on Saturday.

The ministers “stressed the importance of sustained financial support for UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East),” said a joint EU-GCC declaration read out by Borrell.

FUTURE EFFORTS AT DE-ESCALATION

Meanwhile, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned that international support for Israel could wane if the country went too far in its response against Hamas.

“From Ireland’s point of view, we are saying to Israel, ‘Yes, you have a right to defend yourselves [...] but any response must be proportionate,” Varadkar said, adding that there “is a risk of violence breaking out in the West Bank and Lebanon and other places.”

Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov said the conflict could "shift the world’s focus from Russia’s attack against Ukraine.” He added that the outcome of the current crisis would determine what will happen “in the world for decades ahead.”

Tajani emphasized that Rome was ready to contribute towards “fostering de-escalation between the parties and preventing a widening of the conflict.” Italy's top diplomat travelled this week to Egypt, which is a frequent mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

On Wednesday in Cairo, 22 Arab League foreign ministers called for an immediate halt to Israeli attacks on Gaza. Their statement said it was necessary to revive the peace process and “begin serious negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization, as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinians and Israel to achieve a fair and comprehensive peace.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited Israel on Thursday. The US supports Israel with billions of dollars – a considerable part of which goes into rocket defences.

The content of this article is based on reporting by AFP, ANSA, BTA, dpa, Europa Press and STA correspondents, as part of the European Newsroom (enr) project.