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EU Gets Caught Up in Semantic Debates Over a Ceasefire to Help Gaza

While the Gaza Strip, besieged by the Israeli army in response to the attacks by the Islamist militia Hamas on October 7, teeters on the brink of a humanitarian collapse, the European Union is seeking a common term to describe a temporary pause in the bombings to allow much-needed aid to enter the area. Member states, however, are divided on how to do it: some partners consider the concept of a “ceasefire” too strong and advocate calling for “humanitarian pauses” or “humanitarian windows,” which they see as less permanent, EU sources said.

But as the situation in the Gaza Strip worsens — people are trapped there without water, electricity or food and on the verge of running out of fuel — some voices worry that the EU’s internal debate over semantics will further damage its standing in the Middle East and end its possibility of playing a role, not just as a mediator but as a prominent interlocutor in the conflict.

On Thursday and Friday in Brussels, at a summit charged with high geopolitical content, the EU heads of state and government will try to agree to an intermediate formula that reflects the sensitivities of all member states, calls for channeling aid to Gaza and at the same time reflects Israel’s right to defend itself and respond to Hamas’ attacks, said a high-ranking source in Brussels.

There is no universal legal definition of what a ceasefire is. Furthermore, the details of these agreements (whether unilateral or bilateral) are developed later, in most cases through a mediator, to establish how they should be implemented, what territory they include and for how long they will be in force: days, hours…

Some member states, such as Spain and Ireland, have clearly called for a ceasefire. Others, such as France, Belgium and Sweden, demand that the EU call for a “humanitarian pause” that they consider more temporary and malleable. Germany, which was reluctant to any option that would demand from Israel anything that sounded like a cessation of attacks on Gaza, governed de facto by Hamas, is now in favor of asking for “humanitarian windows.”

Austria and the Czech Republic, whose leaders visited Israel on Wednesday, believe that asking Israel to make a pause when it is about to launch a ground incursion into Gaza to eradicate Hamas would damage its defensive objectives.

The EU has been in damage control mode after the contradictory messages issued by different EU institutions in recent weeks, and the deluge of criticism that followed the trip to Israel by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose position was viewed as leaning too far in favor of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and oblivious to the suffering of the civilians of the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s war against Hamas has exposed historical divisions and the different perspectives of member states: some, like Germany or Austria, are more sympathetic to Israel because of their responsibility in the Holocaust; others, like Ireland, has a very critical position with the Israeli army from the beginning due to the siege of Gaza. Despite concerns in Brussels that the war will lead to a regional escalation and the potential effects on the security of the Union itself, the EU is also aware that its influence on the outcome of Israel’s war against Hamas is limited. For the Israeli leadership, the key actor is the United States.

“The European Council expresses its most serious concern about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” says a draft of the conclusions of the EU summit, calling for “rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” and aid for those in need “through all necessary measures, including a humanitarian pause.” The text, which is still subject to change, has removed references to supporting the United Nations’ own call for a “humanitarian pause.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has come under fire from Israel, which demands his resignation due to his address on Tuesday noting that Hamas’ attack did not “happen in a vacuum” but after “56 years of suffocating occupation.”

Vittorio Infante, an expert on conflict and humanitarian issues at Oxfam, warns of the risks of changing the term “ceasefire” to something like “pause.” “If the window of opportunity only offers a pause and is the only possibility on the table for aid to reach the Gaza Strip, we must go with it, but a pause gives the idea that it can be turned on and off, and that reduces security.”

Source : El Pais

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