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In breakthrough, EU leaders call for eventual Gaza ceasefire for the first time

In breakthrough, EU leaders call for eventual Gaza ceasefire for the first time

The breakthrough on Thursday follows five months of deep divisions between the 27 leaders, whose failure to coalesce around a call for a ceasefire has put EU unity under stress.

The conclusions - the result of intensive talks on Thursday evening as EU advisors hammered out a statement palatable to all 27 leaders - deplore the "catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza and its disproportionate effect on civilians" as well the "famine caused by the insufficient entry of aid into Gaza."

"I think it was very strongly felt, the unity of the message tonight," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said following the summit. "The acknowledgment that Israel has the right to do everything possible that the 7th of October will never happen again (...) but it also has the duty to do everything possible to protect civilian life."

The Commission chief has in the past been criticised for adopting a pro-Israeli stance and hesitating to call out the excessive loss of Palestinian life.

But in a marked turn of rhetoric, von der Leyen pleaded on Israel to allow for a surge in humanitarian aid, saying that the minimum threshold of 500 daily trucks was not currently being allowed to enter the Gaza strip.

European Council President Charles Michel, responsible for brokering the compromise between leaders, commended the "strong and unified statement."

While member states such as Belgium, Ireland, and Spain have called for a ceasefire as far back as late October, the Czech Republic and Hungary had previously blocked such a call for fear it would undermine the bloc’s support for Israeli's right to self-defence.

All EU foreign ministers - bar Hungary's - endorsed a call for an eventual ceasefire in the besieged Gaza strip in February, but Budapest wielded its veto power.

The EU is moving in lockstep with its trans-Atlantic ally. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, announced on Wednesday he would push for “an immediate ceasefire tied to the release of hostages” in a resolution to be tabled at the UN Security Council.

It is seen as a stark warning to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a considerable shift in the position of the US, which has voted down UN resolutions on a ceasefire three times.

In the statement, leaders also urge Israel not to proceed with its planned invasion of the southern Gazan town of Rafah, where over a million Palestinians are estimated to be sheltering from war.

"We can imagine what would be the consequences if such an operation was launched," von der Leyen said in reference to Rafah.

They also demand that Israel abide by the International Court of Justice's landmark order in January, which obliges Netanyahu's government to take measures to prevent genocide in Gaza.

'Deeply concerned'

In the harshly-worded statement, leaders say they are "appalled" and "deeply concerned" by the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and say "additional land crossings" are needed to deliver life-saving aid.

A new maritime corridor linking Cyprus with Gaza, called Amalthea, has received the EU's backing, with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides telling reporters a second aid ship for Gaza will likely leave from the island this week.

But many leaders have said a maritime corridor cannot replace access by land, and urged Israeli authorities to do more to ensure aid reaches Palestinians.

"Gaza is on the verge of famine - a catastrophic humanitarian situation," von der Leyen warned.

In recent weeks, pockets of famine have appeared in Gaza. Major international organisations, including the UN’s World Food Programme, have been forced to temporarily suspend deliveries of food to the north of Gaza due to the chaos wrought as hungry Palestinians try to access aid convoys.

The WFP's Famine Review Committee has warned that over 500,000, almost one in four of the population, could fall into famine by May.

The day after

Thursday's conclusions also reaffirm the need to release the remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza, and for the first time take note of the UN's reports of sexual violence committed by Hamas militants during the October 7th attacks, which leaders say they are "appalled" by.

Leaders call on the Council to "accelerate" work on the adoption of further sanctions against Hamas.

Both Michel and von der Leyen again reiterated the bloc's support for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, in which Palestinian statehood is guaranteed.

For this to be achieved, the Palestinian Authority - which governs in the occupied West Bank under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas - needs to be supported to make sure "it is in position to take on more responsibility in the future."

The bloc says it stands ready to support the revival of a political process to restore peace in the troubled region, but has not yet unveiled details on how it would restore governance in Gaza, where Hamas has governed since 2007.