EU summit: Guterres urges European leaders to support Gaza ceasefire

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres reiterated his support for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip before a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday. Other leaders appear willing to increase pressure on Israel.

“We need a ceasefire in Gaza,” Guterres said before the start of a two-day summit of European leaders. “The number of civilian casualties is unprecedented in my time as secretary general. The protection of civilians is a basic principle of international humanitarian law.”

For the first time since October, European leaders will try to reach a majority conclusion on the conflict between Israel and the extremist Palestinian organisation Hamas. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany continue to insist on Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas.

Division between leaders

The summit's draft conclusions call for "an immediate humanitarian pause leading to a lasting ceasefire, the unconditional release of all hostages and the delivery of humanitarian aid". Last month, 26 of the 27 foreign ministers supported this formulation. Only Hungary disagreed.

Historically, Germany and the US have backed Israel. However, in light of the situation in the Gaza Strip, they are also beginning to add pressure for a ceasefire. German chancellor Olaf Scholz supported a "longer ceasefire", and the US submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council in New York for an "immediate ceasefire linked to the release of hostages".

"This is a good example, but the EU should lead, not follow," Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said. He urged an "immediate ceasefire", the release of the hostages and the opening of border crossings for the delivery of humanitarian aid. "It is unacceptable that a man-made crisis is pushing half of Gaza's population to the brink of famine," he said.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, one of the most outspoken critics of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, blamed Austria and the Czech Republic for the lack of a common European plea for a ceasefire. Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer said that the EU must recognise the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas during its attacks on Israel on 7 October.

Aside from the conflict in the Middle East, EU leaders will also discuss continued support for Ukraine, security and defence, external relations, migration and agriculture during the summit.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres speaks to the press before a European Council summit in Brussels on 21 March 2024 © PHOTOJOHN THYS / AFP

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