EU ministers caution Israel over escalation in Gaza


France, Germany and Belgium have expressed concern about the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, while in Brussels the EU's foreign chief and European Parliament president called on both partiess to stop hostilities and avoid further casualties.

Amid intensified rocket exchanges between the two sides, Parliament President Martin Schulz said: “I condemn the escalation of violence between Hamas and Israel. I call on both parts to show maximum restraint and to avoid any further loss of life. Civilians on both sides are paying the highest price in this vicious circle of attacks and retaliations.”

Two days of Israeli air strikes killed 19 Palestinians, including seven militants and 12 civilians, among them six children and a pregnant woman. A Hamas rocket killed three Israelis in the town of Kiryat Malachi on Thursday morning.

Speaking at a meeting of foreign and defence ministers from Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Spain in Paris yesterday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle insisted it was “obvious that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself and protect its own citizens against rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip”.

But he called on all parties “to act wisely and in a de-escalating manner,” insisting that “everyone needs to understand that we need to prevent worse things from happening”.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders stressed “Israel’s legitimate right to defend its population against these attacks”, but called for a “measured response”.

French President François Hollande began talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other world leaders in an attempt to avert an escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Jean-Francois Ayrault said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Netanyahu, too, reportedly saying Hamas bore the principal responsibility for the crisis.

Israel's sworn enemy Iran, which supports and arms Hamas, condemned the Israeli offensive as "organised terrorism."

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has urged both sides to refrain from exacerbating the situation.

"I support the mediation efforts by Egypt and reiterate that there is no place for violence in the Middle East. It is only through resumed negotiations that the legitimate aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis will be met, through a two-state solution," she said.

In a display of solidarity with Hamas militants, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil visited the enclave on Friday. Israeli announced it would halt its military action during the visit.

Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by allies of the Palestinians.

Mursi faces domestic pressure to act tough. But Egypt gets $1.3 billion a year in US military aid and looks to Washington for help with its ailing economy, constraining Mursi despite his need to show Egyptians that his policies differ from those of his US-backed predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

The conflict pours fuel on the fire of a Middle East already riven by two years of revolution and a civil war in Syria.

Crisis talks

Arab foreign ministers are due to meet on Saturday (17 November) at the Cairo-based Arab League to discuss the Israeli attack on Gaza, Deputy Arab League chief Ahmed Ben Helli told Reuters.

The Gaza situation is likely to figure in discussions next week in Brussels when Ashton will host representatives of the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany as part their efforts to dissuade Iran from its nuclear programme.

The United States and Israel believe Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons capability. Iran denies this, saying its programme is entirely peaceful.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to submit its next quarterly Iran report to member states on Friday. EU and US sanctions have made it harder for Iran to sell and transport its oil, but Tehran has shown no sign of backing down on the nuclear work.

Israel said it fired at more than 130 targets in Gaza overnight, in retaliation to repeated rocket attacks from Gaza. The bombardment intensified after Israel authorised the call-up of 30,000 army reservists.

The conflict was triggered on Wednesday when Israel killed Ahmed Al-Jaabari, the chief of Hamas' military wing.

In Tel Aviv, residents took cover after air raid sirens alerted them to a missile threat for the first time since Iraq targeted the city with Scud missiles during the Gulf War in 1991. One missile landed in an uninhabited area while another is thought to have landed in the sea.

Gaza is governed by the Islamist movement Hamas, which does not recognise Israel's right to exist. Hamas has no official contacts with the EU because it is designated as a terrorist entity by European countries.

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