BRUSSELS – European Union foreign ministers called Tuesday for a cease-fire to end days of heavy fighting between the Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militants, but said that a longer-term political solution must be found to end decades of conflict between them.
More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in heavy airstrikes so far, including dozens of children, and over 1,400 people wounded. At least 12 people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy, have been killed in rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip toward civilian areas in Israel.
After a chairing the videoconference meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said there was widespread agreement among the ministers that "the priority is the immediate cessation of all violence and the implementation of a cease-fire.”
Then, Borrell said, “we need to restore a political horizon” by “exploring space for reengagement between the parties” and devise confidence-building measures to help get talks started. He said that could pave the way for "the potential launching of the peace process, which has been in a stalemate for too long.”
The EU's traditional divisions over policy toward Israel and the Palestinians got an unusual public airing Tuesday after Borrell conceded said that Hungary was alone among the 27 member countries not to endorse his remarks. He didn't provide details.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that the conflict could spread throughout the region if no cease-fire is agreed. He also said he hoped that Israel wouldn't launch a ground operation in Gaza.
“Each day brings greater risks: the risk of the conflict spreading to the West Bank, the risk of violence inside Israel itself, the risk that the conflict becomes a regional one,” Le Drian told reporters in Paris during a break in the meeting.
Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel on Tuesday, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides.
“The situation on the ground is extremely worrying. There is a heavy casualty toll. Israeli and Palestinian families are in mourning. The images are terrible and cannot leave anyone indifferent. Waiting is not an option,” Le Drian said.
He also said that “one of the reasons for the dramatic situation today is precisely because there is no perspective for a political process. What we need to do is find the path to a political process, but before anything else, to ensure that there is an end to the hostilities.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also said that “the weapons must finally fall silent.”
Maas emphasized the role of the diplomatic Quartet, in which the EU is represented by its new Middle East peace envoy Sven Koopmans, and said “we are in favor of further expanding his mediation efforts.” The Quartet’s other three members are the United Nations, the U.S. and Russia.
“We must use our relationships with both sides to encourage confidence-building steps that could lead to calming the situation both inside Israel and in the West Bank,” Maas added. “Only that way will it be possible to talk again about a lasting solution to the Middle East conflict.”
Both ministers said that the bloc has a role to play in helping end the conflict, but while the EU is the biggest aid donor to the Palestinians it holds little sway over the militant group Hamas or Israel, despite having some trade arrangements that are favorable to the Israelis.
EU nations are also divided in their approach to the conflict, even though the bloc as a whole remains committed to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines, with the possibility of mutually agreed land-swaps.
Recently, officials have voiced growing concern that Israeli settlement expansion is undermining that possibility.
Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.