EU foreign ministers called for a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on Tuesday, but failed to reach the unanimity that might give Brussels leverage in peacemaking. Hungary, Israel’s closest ally in the bloc, declined to join the other 26 nations in calling for a truce on their video call, convened by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. Nevertheless, the other ministers vowed that the EU should try to relaunch the peace process along with the US, Russia and the United Nations (UN).
Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo said: “As a minimum we can try to get a ceasefire, then provide humanitarian aid, and then see what can be done to restart the Middle East peace process to address the root causes of the violence.
“We cannot let the extremists on both sides feed off each other and set the agenda.”
Tensions have been running high in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem after an Israeli court ordered the eviction of Palestinian families, which was later delayed.
Palestinians protesting in solidarity with residents of Sheikh Jarrah have been targeted by Israeli forces.
The escalation resulted in airstrikes by Israel on Gaza, which has left at least 119 people dead and 830 others wounded, according to Palestinian health authorities.
As many wonder whether EU divisions over the conflict will leave Brussels powerless, comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the bloc have resurfaced.
In 2017, Mr Netanyahu launched a blistering attack on the EU at a closed-door meeting of eastern European leaders in Budapest, warning the political grouping would wither and die if it did not change its policy towards his country.
The remarks, caught on an open microphone, underlined Mr Netanyahu’s often barely disguised contempt for the EU, which had in the past criticised Israel over issues including Jewish settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories and the peace process.
The overheard remarks were reported by Israeli journalists covering the trip.
In the meeting with the leaders of Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland, Mr Netanyahu urged them to close their doors to refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
He said: “I think Europe has to decide if it wants to live and thrive or if it wants to shrivel and disappear.
“I am not very politically correct. I know that’s a shock to some of you. It’s a joke.
“But the truth is the truth – both about Europe’s security and Europe’s economic future. Both of these concerns mandate a different policy toward Israel.”
Before officials realised the meeting was being overheard by reporters and cut the feed, Mr Netanyahu insisted: “The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel, which produces technology in every area, on political conditions. The only ones! Nobody does it.”
Urging the leaders to expedite the EU association agreement with Israel that had been held up, he added: “It’s crazy. It’s actually crazy.
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“I think that if I can suggest that what comes out of this meeting is your ability perhaps to communicate to your colleagues in other parts of Europe: Help Europe … don’t undermine the one western country that defends European values and European interests and prevents another mass migration to Europe.
“So stop attacking Israel. Start supporting Israel … start supporting European economies by doing what the Americans, the Chinese and the Indians are doing.
“There is no logic here. The EU is undermining its security by undermining Israel. Europe is undermining its progress by undermining its connection with Israeli innovation.”
According to an NGO, international lawyers and MEPs said the bloc was acting illegally in 2015 by funding unauthorised Palestinian buildings in areas placed under Israeli control by the Oslo Accords.
More than 400 EU-funded Palestinian homes had been erected in Area C of the West Bank, which was placed under Israeli jurisdiction by the international agreement, to which the EU was a signatory.
The Palestinian buildings, which have no Israeli permits, came at a cost of tens of millions of euros in public money, a proportion of which came from the British taxpayer.
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The claims were said to be made by Regavim, a right-of-centre Israeli NGO, which had been closely documenting the construction.
Senior international lawyers and two MEPs backed its findings.
Maja Kocijancic, a Brussels-based EU spokesperson, though, denied that this was happening.
She told the Daily Mail: “The EU’s funding will provide training and expertise, to help the relevant Palestinian Authority (PA) Ministries to plan and build new infrastructure and enable people to reclaim and rebuild their land there.
“To date, no construction has started yet under these programmes. The EU is not funding illegal projects.”
On the other hand, Shadi Othman, a spokesman for the EU in the West Bank and Gaza, accepted that the construction was taking place.
He told the publication: “We support the Palestinian presence in Area C.
“Palestinian presence should not be limited Areas A and B. Area C is part of the occupied Palestinian territory which eventually will be Palestinian land.
“Palestinians have a right to live there, build schools there, have economic development.
“This is part of the work done to build the future Palestinian state which will live side by side with Israel.
“It’s an international and EU interest to protect the viability of the two state solution.”
He added: “If some people are complaining about this, we should not forget the illegal Israeli settlements that are built on occupied Palestinian territory and are illegal under international law and constitute an obstacle to peace.”
An Oxfam spokesman claimed that the construction was justified on humanitarian grounds.
He said: “In recent years, around 97 percent of Palestinian permit applications for building in the Occupied Palestinian Territory have been rejected by the Israeli Government.
“This means many Palestinian communities in Area C, which is under full Israeli Government control, are being prevented from building basic, essential structures such as homes and schools.
“Palestinian communities in Area C are some of the poorest in the West Bank. The international community has a responsibility to support vital projects for marginalised communities in Area C.”
Referring to Area C, Israel’s Defence Minister Naftali Bennet said: “The state of Israel will do everything to ensure that these territories will be part of the state of Israel.”