EU leaders eye call for ‘humanitarian pause’ in Gaza

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EU leaders will on Thursday debate calling for a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s war with Hamas, as the bloc grapples with another conflict on its fringes alongside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The European Union has struggled for both unity and influence in the face of the crisis that has engulfed the Middle East since Hamas launched its surprise attack on Israel on October 7.

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The surge in bloodshed has stretched Europe’s attention at a time of rising doubts about the West’s ability to keep supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

The 27-nation bloc has long been split between more pro-Palestinian members such as Ireland and Spain, and staunch backers of Israel including Germany and Austria.

There has been strong condemnation of the Hamas attack that Israel says killed at least 1,400 people and resulted in more than 200 being taken hostage.

But there has been less consensus on urging any halt to Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed over 6,500 people.

After days of negotiations, a draft statement for the summit calls “for continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including a humanitarian pause”.

That statement -- which could change when leaders meet in Brussels -- falls short of demands from the United Nations for a “ceasefire”.

Germany, wary of urging a more definitive halt that could tie Israel’s hands, has mooted calls for humanitarian “windows” or “pauses” in the plural.

“Letters, commas, language matter, and that’s how you find agreements,” said a senior EU official.

But diplomats from some EU nations warn that delays over finding the right words as the death toll mounts are hitting the bloc’s global standing and leaving it flailing in the face of developments.

The eruption of violence in the Middle East has sparked fears the West could get distracted from Russia’s war on Ukraine 20 months into the invasion.

The fresh crisis comes at a moment when turmoil in the US Congress has already raised questions about the sustainability of Washington’s military aid.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed Tuesday that “support will in no way be impacted by the fact that we of course since the horrible morning hours of October 7 have focused on Israel and the Middle East”.

Chief among EU measures meant to reassure Kyiv is a plan -- earlier estimated at 20 billion euros ($21 billion) over four years -- for a defence fund for Ukraine as part of broader Western security commitments.

Diplomats say progress has been held up by Hungary, Russia’s closest ally in the bloc, and leaders are set to task the bloc’s foreign policy chief to report back on the issue in December.

There will also be calls to impose new sanctions on Moscow that could include banning Russian diamond imports once the G7 agrees on a way of tracing them.

In addition, a plan for using the revenues from frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine will be discussed.

Looming over the discussion on Ukraine will be the country’s next steps in its push to join the EU.

The bloc’s executive arm is to give an assessment on November 8 on whether to open formal accession talks with Kyiv.

Then it will be up to EU leaders to decide whether to adopt any recommendations by the end of the year.

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