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After two exceptional dinner meetings, one with the Israeli foreign policy chief, on 21 January (see Europolitics 3678) and the other with her counterparts from the Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan and Palestine) and Turkey, on 25 January, the EU's foreign ministers met in Council, on 26 January, to define a common position on the Middle East peace process. The position rallied unanimous backing on certain points - support for the Egyptian peace plan and delivery of humanitarian aid - but required longer discussion on others, in particular on the need for an international investigation and access to reconstruction aid.

The Europeans of course welcomed the ceasefire and called on all the parties to work to make it permanent. For the EU, the peace process includes a lasting halt in rocket attacks on Israel, the "urgent" opening of the border crossing to Gaza "on a regular and foreseeable basis," the delivery of humanitarian aid and rehabilitation and reconstruction aid, as well as an "effective mechanism to prevent arms and munitions smuggling" in the Gaza Strip.

The EU insisted firmly on only one request, however: access for humanitarian assistance. It still refuses to engage in dialogue with Hamas, which is still on the EU list of terrorist organisations, moreover. De facto dialogue occurs through two key official channels - Egypt and Norway - the latter having adopted the position of "holding dialogue with everyone". Norway's foreign minister even attended the dinner of EU ministers on 25 January. The EU tends to support the process of reconciliation among Palestinians instead, urging them to move towards a "consensus," "technical" or "national unity" government between the Palestinian Authority (Ramallah) and Hamas (Gaza).

The Europeans offered their services to the parties to the conflict in six areas: strengthening of immediate emergency humanitarian aid, in particular for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) and other international agencies; support for rehabilitation, reconstruction, economic recovery and the future economic development of Gaza; reactivation of EU border assistance at the Rafah crossing point (EUBAM Rafah) as soon as conditions allow; the "possibility" of extending this assistance to other crossing points (implying those held by Israel) in the region; prevention of arms and munitions trafficking, with the commitment to "find ways to collaborate" with the efforts of the United States; and support for resumption of the peace process.

On 26 January, Javier Solana left for another three-day tour of the Middle East.

New aid package

On a two-day visit to the Middle East, Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel announced, on 26 January, a 58 million plan to assist the Palestinians. The bulk of the 2009 global plan (32 million) will be earmarked for responding to the humanitarian situation in Gaza, 20 million will be for assistance to the West Bank and the remaining 6 million for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Earlier in January, the Commission had released emergency funding of 3 million for Gaza. Michel, known for his outspokenness on Israel's offensive, said that "One cannot hold discussions with a terrorist movement which uses terrorism as a means. [...] When one kills innocent civilians, it is not resistance, it is terrorism," he explained. "The EU will treat Hamas as a partner if it recognises the right of Israel to exist, because the EU position is two states [Israel and Palestine] living in peace. We cannot accept that Hamas denies Israel's right to exist. Doing so does not make sense and is unacceptable," he added.

International probe

Belgium, Ireland, Slovenia and Sweden have called for the opening of an international investigation into violations of international law during this conflict, particularly the use of unconventional weapons. After a restricted session, most of the EU ministers turned down wording they considered too harsh. The only mention in the conclusions is therefore the classic reminder of the need to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, with an addition stating that they "will closely follow investigations of violations of international humanitarian law". This represents a slight evolution in the EU position, which has been very discreet on this point since the start of the conflict.

The conclusions are available at > Search = 242354
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Publication:European Report
Date:Jan 27, 2009

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