By ANDREW RETTMAN
Israel’s siege of Gaza is illegal the EU’s top diplomat has said, while insisting that European aid to Palestine will keep flowing.
“Israel has a right to self-defence, but it has to be done within international law … cutting water, cutting electricity, cutting food to a mass of civilian people is against international law,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Tuesday (10 October).
He repeated the view more than once in his press briefing. “The Palestinian people are also suffering,” he added.
Borrell’s words were the first direct EU criticism of Israel’s reaction to a massacre of about 1,000 Israelis on Saturday by Hamas, a Palestinian group which rules Gaza.
The medieval-type Gaza blockade was announced by Israel’s defence minister on Monday.
Israeli forces have also killed some 830 Palestinians in air raids, while the UN relief agency in Gaza, UNWRA, painted a grim picture of other events on the ground.
Food-distribution centres are closed, meaning 500,000 people didn’t get food rations this week.
Schools are closed because some 190,000 people are using them as bomb shelters.
Solid waste collection has also stopped, while drinking water is being delivered by trucks for now, UNWRA said on Tuesday.
Borrell spoke to press in Muscat, where he had attended a meeting of Gulf-region ministers, as well as emergency EU foreign-ministers’ talks.
His condemnation of Israel’s behaviour came after three days of EU rhetoric that had focused on the “utterly inhuman … shocking … barbarous” nature of Hamas’ atrocities, while highlighting Israel’s rights rather than its obligations.
“Israel’s actions are a direct consequence of what Hamas did,” Borrell’s spokesman had said in Brussels earlier the same day.
Borrell’s colleague, Hungarian commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, also made it look like Europe endorsed collective punishment by tweeting on Monday that all EU aid to Palestine was being frozen.
This was not true and Várhelyi had not consulted anyone before tweeting it, the European Commission confirmed on Tuesday — but not before damage had been done.
The Várhelyi farce had prompted a “wave” of questions by Arab states, Borrell noted.
It also emboldened Israeli diplomats and some German MPs to push for wider aid-cuts and it frightened first responders.
“If UNRWA does not receive expected contributions, it will not be able to continue its life-saving service provision in Gaza and throughout the region, which would result in a humanitarian catastrophe,” Marta Lorenzo, UNWRA’s Europe director, told EUobserver.
Borrell said that “95 percent” of EU ministers took the same line in the Muscat talks, while “two or three” of the EU 27 did want aid cuts.
He pledged his staff would conduct a swift review of EU aid to Palestine to make sure no money ended up with Hamas via error or deception.
The EU commission spent €30 million on water-sanitation facilities in Gaza last year for instance, as part of a wider €296 million aid budget for Palestine including €97 million for UNWRA.
“If, in a few years, we discover that some money we spent went to fund terrorist activities someone will have to take political responsibility for that. I don’t believe it happens, but let’s check it,” Borrell said.
Stopping aid to ordinary Palestinians would be “the best present we could give to Hamas and it would jeopardise our interests and partnerships in the Arab world,” he added.
The European Parliament helps to oversee EU spending via its budgetary-control committee.
And its 2024 EU-budget rapporteur, Romanian centre-right MEP Siegfried Muresan, also said he would consider freezing non-essential aid money if need be.
“We want to make sure that, beyond UNRWA, the EU budget does not get to any organisations which has any ties, any links to Hamas,” he said.
“If there is anything from the EU budget that we feel has to be put in question or frozen or put in reserve as a consequence of the start of this war we are going to propose a respective amendment,” Muresan added.
“On our end, it’s very hard to check for that and no funding on our end has been specifically earmarked for Gaza,” an EU parliament source also said.