The Czech EU Presidency yesterday (4 January) admitted a blunder which seemingly legitimised the Israeli land offensive in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, at a time when other EU leaders condemned the escalation of violence and called for an immediate ceasefire.
A Czech Presidency spokesperson on Friday (2 January) described the Israeli land incursion into the Palestinian territory of Gaza as a “defensive, not offensive” operation. This was immediately seized upon by the world press as a sign of EU disunity over the conflict as the bloc’s former presidency holder, France, had already condemned the attack and called for an immediate ceasefire.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg yesterday moved to clarify the words of his spokesperson and said that “everyone is making mistakes”. But the blunder did little to assuage fears of a difficult EU presidency ahead (see EURACTIV Links Dossier on the Czech Presidency). Schwarzenberg is renowned for his pro-Israeli stance and was also quoted as defending the Israeli military operation.
“Launching land operations by the Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip is not surprising, there were indications that Israel had been considering this step. But even the indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians,” the official Czech Presidency position reads.
At the earlier stage just before the land offensive, EU leaders had labelled the attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas (which controls Gaza) “unacceptable” and described Israel’s retaliation as “disproportionate”. After the launch of the ground assault, European heavyweights such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for an immediate ceasefire, including an end to Hamas rocket attacks against Israel.
Dutch also out of tune
But the confusion did not end there, with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende also showing sympathy for Israel’s moves, arguing that the offensive could not be condemned as long as Hamas continued to fire rockets.
“Condemning Israel is pointless because both parties have to be addressed,” he said in an interview aired yesterday on Dutch television.
Institutions in hibernation
The developments took the EU by surprise, as the European institutions traditionally hibernate over the winter recess. The short war in Georgia in August 2008 was similarly unexpected, although on that occasion the French EU Presidency quickly took the lead.
In what is widely seen as a result of a lack of coordination, two separate EU visits to the region are now expected, the first led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and the second by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Czech delegation includes French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, his Swedish colleague Carl Bildt (representing the future EU presidency) and EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
The EU mission was due to start late on Sunday (4 January) in Cairo, followed by meetings today in Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. From there, they will go to the West Bank town of Ramallah to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Sarkozy will also attend the meetings with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Sarkozy will travel to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, before heading to Jerusalem to meet Ehud Olmert. On Tuesday, he travels to Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad and to Lebanon to visit French troops serving in a UN force in south Lebanon.
The Times of London wrote that Sarkozy’s Middle East visit showed that the “hyperactive Super Sarko” would not be ending his stint as President of Europe any time soon, despite the Czechs’ assumption of the EU helm.
The EU, which is the largest donor to the Palestinians, announced it would provide an additional three million euros to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
About 1.5 million people are “crammed into an area that is just over 1% the size of Belgium,” EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said yesterday. “They rely on supplies from outside for their survival.”