By Andrew Gray
BRUSSELS (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell accused the Israeli government on Tuesday of violating international law by imposing a total blockade of Gaza in response to the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ attack on Israel.
After an emergency meeting to discuss the fallout from the attack, Borrell also said an “overwhelming majority” of EU foreign ministers supported continuing aid payments to the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank.
Borrell released his statement a day after European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, a Hungarian diplomat, said all EU development aid for the Palestinians had been suspended – only for the Commission to renege on his announcement after a backlash negative by EU governments.
Borrell had invited the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers to participate in the meeting in Muscat, Oman, via video conference.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen did not want to attend a meeting that Palestinian Authority Minister Riyad al-Maliki would also have attended, so neither decided to take part, the officials said.
Borrell reiterated the EU’s condemnation of the Hamas attacks that killed more than 1,000 Israelis, most of them civilians.
But he said Israel’s response – which has so far killed at least 770 Gazans, according to local officials – must be in line with international humanitarian law and the decision to impose a total blockade on Gaza is against this standard.
“Israel has the right to defend itself, but it must do so in accordance with international law, humanitarian law and some decisions are contrary to international law,” he told reporters after the meeting.
Borrell recalled that the United Nations said that “cutting off water, cutting off electricity, cutting off food to a mass of civilians is against international law.”
Israel criticized the UN statement, accusing the world body’s human rights chief of failing to condemn Hamas as a terrorist.
Borrell stressed that the EU does not cooperate with Hamas, which governs Gaza and which the EU classifies as a terrorist organisation. But he said it was crucial that the bloc continues to provide aid to Palestinian civilians through the Palestinian Authority.
“Collective punishment against all Palestinians would be unjust and unproductive,” he said.
The 27-nation EU says it is the largest provider of external assistance to the Palestinians.
Last year, it donated about 283 million euros ($299.78 million) to support the Palestinian Authority and the main U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees and other projects, according to the European Commission.
But the EU has long had deep divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which came into the open in reaction to the short-lived aid suspension announcement by Varhelyi, whose national government is a close ally of Israel.
A European Commission spokesperson said on Tuesday Varhelyi had not consulted his fellow commissioners, including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Several EU governments openly criticized the announcement and others did so behind the scenes, diplomats said. The Commission then said it would review the aid to ensure no funds go to terrorists, but that payments would continue in the meantime.
Spain’s interim foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, said the Palestinian territories will likely need more aid after the Hamas assault and subsequent Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip.
(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Emma Pinedo, Andrew Gray and Thomas Escritt; additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Nicolas Delame and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; writing by Charlie Devereux; editing by Tomasz Janowski, Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)