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EU calls for 'corridors and pauses' for Gaza aid

Gaza is under daily bombardment by Israel following the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israeli communities
— Brussels (AFP)

EU leaders on Thursday called for "humanitarian corridors and pauses" in Israel's war with Hamas to get aid into Gaza, after hours of negotiations at a summit of the bloc in Brussels.

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 bloody attack on Israel on October 7.

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

After five hours of talks, the leaders called for "continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs".

They said the EU "will work closely with partners in the region to protect civilians, provide assistance and facilitate access to food, water, medical care, fuel and shelter".

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted early on Friday there was "no contradiction between showing solidarity to Israel and, of course, acting on the need of humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza" after the leaders' talks ended.

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.

Food is distributed at a camp for displaced people in the south of the Gaza Strip

There has been strong condemnation of the Hamas attack, which Israel says killed at least 1,400 people and resulted in more than 220 people being taken hostage.

But there was less consensus on urging any halt to Israel's retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed more than 7,000 people.

The EU's call fell short of the demands from the United Nations for a "ceasefire", despite a last-ditch push from Spain to toughen the language.

- 'Fantasies' -

Germany and other strong supporters of Israel had sought to temper any wording that could be seen as tying Israel's hand in going after Hamas.

"All the fantasies of truces, ceasefires, etc. have the effect of strengthening Hamas in its determination to continue its action and perpetuate this terrible terror," Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said ahead of the talks.

Ursula von der Leyen said there is "no contradiction between showing solidarity to Israel and, of course, acting on the need of humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza"

The EU leaders said in their statement that they supported a Spanish proposal on "holding of an international peace conference soon" to discuss trying to find a lasting, two-state solution.

The conference should be held within the next six months, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said before the talks began on Thursday.

Diplomats from some EU nations had warned that delays over finding the right words as the death toll mounts in Gaza were hitting the bloc's global standing.

"We can feel that some in the world are using the circumstances to try to rally a part of the international community to attack the European Union," European Council President Charles Michel said.

- No to 'war fatigue' -

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.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said the EU had "no right for war fatigue" over Kyiv's fight.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky called into the summit and backed efforts to "prevent an even larger international fire from breaking out in the Middle East".

"The enemies of freedom are very interested in bringing the free world to the second front... We must clearly see this scenario and counter it -- together," he said.

A fracture in EU unity appeared on Thursday when Slovakia's new populist Prime Minister Robert Fico said his government was stopping its military aid to Ukraine.

Together with Hungary's Viktor Orban -- Russia's closest ally in the EU -- Fico could now form a block on further efforts to support Kyiv or punish the Kremlin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was to call in to the summit to keep his country's war against invading Russia in focus

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.

Leaders are set to task the bloc's foreign policy chief to report back on the issue in December.

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

A plan for using the revenues from frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine will also be discussed.