As Israel’s Rafah ground offensive looms, EU leaders make last-ditch calls for restraint

Mared Gwyn Jones

European leaders and ministers have urged Israel to refrain from launching its long-anticipated military operation in Rafah, an attack which is believed to be imminent.

The outcry comes following months of anticipation that Israel’s war cabinet could order its troops to invade the city, which borders Egypt on the south edge of the besieged Gaza Strip.

Since February, the bloc has been warning that the move would worsen an “already catastrophic situation” given that around 1.4 million Palestinians – over half of Gaza’s population – are sheltering from war in Rafah.

On Monday, Israel’s military ordered residents and displaced Palestinians to evacuate Rafah’s eastern neighbourhoods to safe zones in other parts of Gaza, indicating that the invasion could be imminent.

It comes after ceasefire talks in the Egyptian capital of Cairo collapsed over the weekend, and after Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant said his forces would move into Rafah if parties failed to broker a ceasefire deal.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his “firmest opposition” to a potential Israeli ground assault on Rafah.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, whose government has led criticism of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, also told Belgian media on Monday that invading Rafah would have “dramatic consequences for the population.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on social media platform X that an attack on Rafah would “increase the suffering already endured” by the Palestinian people.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, joined pleas on Israel to “renounce” its plans, and said the EU “can and must act to prevent such a scenario.”

An EU official speaking on condition of anonymity told Euronews that the bloc was looking to convene member states to discuss a potential response to Israel’s defiance. But the source also said that there were no concrete plans on the table yet in terms of the EU response.

Diplomatic efforts are ongoing in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade Benjamin Netanyahu from proceeding into Rafah, with US President Joe Biden expected to speak to the Israeli premier by phone later on Monday.

An assault on Rafah would put the West’s failure to wield its diplomatic weight to pressure Israel into restraint into sharp focus. EU leaders unanimously called on Israel not to proceed with its planned invasion of Rafah in late March.

The bloc has consistently struggled to reach consensus in its response to the Israel-Hamas war, with capitals’ positions on the conflict seemingly drifting apart in recent months.

A cohort of member states, notably led by Spain and Ireland, have consistently called for a tougher EU stance on Israel and are in favour of recognising the State of Palestine.

Others, notably Germany, Austria and Hungary, are hesitant to undermine the bloc’s stance of solidarity with Israel.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – who is bidding for a second term at the EU executive’s helm – said last Monday during an electoral debate in Maastricht that the bloc would take action should Israel invade Rafah.

“I think it would be completely unacceptable if Netanyahu would invade Rafah,” von der Leyen said, adding that if he did, her executive would “sit down with our member states and act on that.”

Belgium pushes for trade curbs


Belgium, which holds the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, has been pushing Brussels to ban the import of products from territories occupied by Israel for “several weeks,” De Croo also said on Monday.

Under the Belgian proposal, products from Israeli-occupied territories such as dates and olive oil would be banned from entering the bloc.

Under EU legislation, Israeli products made by settlers should be clearly labelled as such and subject to less preferential customs arrangements, but the rules are not strictly enforced.

Belgian deputy prime minister Petra de Sutter announced on Monday that the Belgian government was also planning further sanctions against Israel.

Madrid and Dublin have called on the EU executive to conduct an urgent review of the EU-Israel ‘Association Agreement’, which defines both parties’ trading relationship. The agreement includes a clause which allows either party to suspend trade in case of human rights violations.

But the proposal has failed to earn leaders’ required unanimous backing.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Irish Taoiseach Simon Harris agreed over a phone call on Monday that they would “make progress” on the recognition of a Palestinian state “very shortly,” and that their governments are in close contact on the issue.

Spain’s Sánchez has previously set a deadline of July for his country to formally recognise a Palestinian state, which would encompass Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

(Source: Euronews)