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EU may clash with UK over Israel ceasefire

BRUSSELS -Splits have emerged between the European Union’s member states following Hamas’s attacks on Israel and its response in bombing Gaza.

EU figures initially issued a fierce condemnation of Hamas’s assault on innocent civilians and expressed solidarity with Israel. But as Israel has retaliated, flattening swathes of Gaza, European leaders have called for restraint.

The British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has had calls with the US president, Joe Biden, and Emmanuel Macron in France, largely to ensure similar, nuanced messaging.

Biden and Sunak have taken a harder line than the EU and countries like France, which have backed a ceasefire to allow aid to enter and hostages to be released.

But while this could set up a possible clash between the UK and EU, the greatest confusion and division exists within the bloc itself.

The conflict, which will dominate the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, has exposed the limits of European influence over the Middle East.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Jerusalem on Tuesday, epitomised the EU’s struggle to temper its message as the conflict risks spiralling out of control. “I am here to express my support, solidarity, and support… in all areas of this battle against terrorism,” he said, standing alongside Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and pointing to the 30 French deaths amongst the 1,400 killed during the Hamas attacks on Israeli soil.

But he cautioned Israel in its pursuit of Hamas. “The struggle must be merciless, but not without rules,” he said, pointing to respect for the “law of war”, before heading to Ramallah, in the West Bank, to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Macron’s tempered message contrasts with that of Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, who visited Jerusalem last week and offered such unwavering support for Israel that many saw it as carte blanche for the country to retaliate.

Mrs Von der Leyen has won praise for her bold backing of Ukraine over the past 18 months, and for rallying the EU’s disparate factions in uniting behind Kyiv. However, her seemingly unconditional alignment with Israel has drawn ire from within the EU, with most national governments warning that this should not lead to “collective punishment” of Palestinians in Gaza.

Mr Sunak, and US President Joe Biden have also visited Jerusalem – and have been in contact with their European allies to align their messages.

Some countries, such as Spain and Ireland have warned of an impending humanitarian disaster. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, most backed a pause in Gaza, and all said the conflict should not lead to people being deprived of water, food and fuel.

Mrs Von der Leyen, who travelled to Jerusalem alongside European Parliament president Roberta Metsola, insisted that Israel had the right to defend itself, but crucially did not mention that this should be in line with its international commitments.

This point has, however, been underlined by EU Council president Charles Michel, and Mrs Von der Leyen’s Commission colleagues, including EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

The result has been a cacophony of messages. Even more damagingly, it has also called into question the EU’s global image: after rushing to Ukraine’s defence, it has seemingly done little to stand up for the Palestinians facing Israel’s barrage.

There are warnings that this has lost the EU much of its status as an ally of poorer African and Asian countries. And it could cost Mrs Von der Leyen vital support from within the EU as she bids for a second term as Commission President.

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