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All 27 EU leaders call for ‘humanitarian corridors and pauses’ in Gaza

Leaders of the 27 EU member states have unanimously called for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” of the shelling in Gaza to allow food, water and medical supplies to reach Palestinians.

An official declaration will be issued after a two-day summit of leaders in Brussels.

The agreement was reached late on Thursday after further concessions to Spain, which sought mention of a “ceasefire” – considering this to be a stronger message from the EU. But the demand for a ceasefire from the Spanish president was also a strategic move designed to extract other concessions in the text.

Pedro Sánchez persuaded other EU leaders to agree to support a peace conference on a two-state solution – a call that is now in the formal declaration.

The member states also agreed specific language on the killing of civilians in Gaza and Israel.

“The European Council reiterates the importance of ensuring the protection of all civilians at all times in line with international humanitarian law. It deplores all loss of civilian life,” read the additional paragraph.

The deal follows days of bickering over the language in what one diplomat said was a week of “difficult discussions” over a situation everyone agreed was “horrific”.

In calling for “pauses” in the conflict to allow trucks with humanitarian aid to enter safely, the declaration stated: “The European Council expresses its gravest concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza and calls for continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses.”

It is understood three member states, including Israel’s close ally Germany, that favoured the phrase “windows” felt an earlier text involving the phrase “humanitarian pause” suggested a permanent ceasefire and would undermine Israel’s right to defend itself.

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The division reflects one of the most damaging episodes for the EU in many years, with an early clash between the European Council president, Charles Michel, and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, over the lack of emphasis on humanitarian concerns in her early statements on the conflict.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, played down the row, saying everyone would coalesce around the important issue, which was the urgent need to get aid into Gaza.

Early on Friday after the talks ended, Von der Leyen insisted there was “no contradiction between showing solidarity to Israel and, of course, acting on the need of humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza”.

However, some feel the lack of unity has already damaged support for the EU in the global south.

“We were heavily criticised in [the Cairo peace summit]. It was as if all the outreach we have done over the last two years [to Arab nations] has been pissed up against the wall,” one source said.

One diplomat said they didn’t care whether “pause” or “pauses” or “windows” was in the official communique for the summit, but they were concerned about handing Hamas an opportunity. “If the pause is too long, it will help Hamas to recover and attack again,” they said.

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One senior source said that contrary to impressions given by some, there were “a range of views on the crisis” and there had been so much “heavy lifting” in the last few days to agree the text, they had avoided turning the summit into a “drafting session”.

After the unity and leadership shown amid the Covid pandemic and then Ukraine, cracks over the Middle East were on display in the first 48 hours after Hamas’s attack on Israel as Von der Leyen clashed with Michel over the need to ensure Israel’s defence was in line with international law.

Diplomats agreed that the discussions had been difficult but said the purpose of finding language that all countries could agree on was to allow the bloc to move forward and bring “political energy” to what counted: the supply of humanitarian aid and ultimately renewal of talks on a two-state solution.

On the margins of the summit, efforts to revive talks between Serbia and Kosovo appeared to fail.

After five hours of talks started by the French, Italian and German leaders, the two sides looked as far apart as ever. Kosovo said it agreed to an EU proposal to “self manage” the northern part of the country where the majority population is Serbian, but Belgrade refused to sign.

At the weekend, a high-powered delegation including the US’s special envoy to the Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, and representatives of France, Germany, Italy and the EU flew to Belgrade and Pristina for separate talks with the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, and the Kosovan president, Albin Kurti.

The two Balkan leaders are expected to meet the EU team before the summit.