Some of Israel’s closest European allies pressed for a cease-fire in the war with Hamas on Sunday, underscoring growing international unease with the devastating impact of the conflict on Gaza’s civilian population.
The concerted push by top European diplomats comes before a visit to Israel on Monday by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is also expected to put pressure on Israeli leaders to end the war’s most intense phase and transition to a more targeted strategy against Hamas.
The war, which erupted on October 7 after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, has killed more than 19,000 Palestinians, and displaced tens of thousands more. The UN says more than half of Gaza’s 2 million people lack access to clean water, electricity, and health care, and warns of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel says it is defending itself from Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization, and that it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. Israel accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilians as human shields and firing rockets from densely populated areas.
On Sunday, Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid rejected any call for a cease-fire as a “prize for terrorism” and said Israel would continue its military campaign until it achieved its goals of degrading Hamas’s capabilities and restoring deterrence.
However, Israel’s stance faced increasing criticism from its European allies, who urged both sides to stop the violence and resume negotiations for a lasting peace.
France, Germany, and the UK issued a joint statement on Sunday, calling for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” and expressing “grave concern” over the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
The statement also condemned Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel and reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defense, but stressed that this must be “proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law”.
The three countries also called for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which was adopted in 2016 and calls for an end to Israeli settlement activity and a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.
Meanwhile, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell spoke to Lapid and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, and reiterated the bloc’s “readiness to support a political process aimed at a two-state solution”.
Borrell also announced that he would convene an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers on Tuesday to discuss the crisis and coordinate the EU’s response.
The diplomatic efforts came as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin prepared to visit Israel on Monday, as part of a regional tour that also includes Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Austin is expected to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and other senior officials, and discuss the security situation and the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership.
According to Israeli media reports, Austin will also convey a message from President Joe Biden, who has been under pressure from some members of his own party and human rights groups to take a tougher stance on Israel and push for a cease-fire.
Biden has publicly expressed his support for Israel’s right to defend itself, but has also expressed concern over the civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He has also urged Israel to ensure the protection of journalists, after an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building that housed several media outlets, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, on Saturday.
Israel said the building was also used by Hamas’s military intelligence and that it gave advance warning to the occupants to evacuate. The AP and Al Jazeera condemned the attack and called for an independent investigation.
The U.S. has also blocked three attempts by the UN Security Council to issue a statement calling for a cease-fire, saying it would not help to de-escalate the situation and that it preferred to pursue quiet diplomacy.
However, some analysts say the U.S. may have more leverage over Israel than it appears, and that Austin’s visit could signal a shift in the U.S. approach.
“The U.S. has a lot of influence over Israel, not only because of the military and economic aid, but also because of the political and diplomatic cover it provides,” said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University London and a senior consulting research fellow at Chatham House.
“Austin’s visit could be a way of telling Israel that enough is enough, and that it’s time to stop the escalation and move to a more surgical and intelligence-based operation against Hamas,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mekelberg added that the U.S. also has an interest in restoring stability in the region and preventing the conflict from spilling over to other countries or fueling extremism.
“The U.S. wants to focus on other priorities, such as China, Iran, and climate change, and it doesn’t want to see the Middle East in flames,” he said. “The U.S. also knows that the longer the war goes on, the more it will radicalize the Palestinian population and undermine the prospects for a peaceful solution.”