Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, left, and European Council President Charles Michel speak with the media as he arrives for a EU Summit in Brussels on March 21.Omar Havana/The Associated Press

European Union leaders were urged Thursday to show the same respect for international law in Gaza as they aim to uphold in Ukraine, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians face dire food shortages and possible famine.

At an EU summit in Brussels, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the leaders to remain strong and united in their respect of standards enshrined in the United Nations Charter and international law.

“The basic principle of international humanitarian law is the protection of civilians. We must stick to principles in Ukraine as in Gaza without double standards,” Guterres told reporters, standing alongside EU Council President Charles Michel, who chaired the summit.

A U.N. food agency has warned that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza. Israel, meanwhile, appears determined to launch a ground offensive in the southern city of Rafah, where many people have sought refuge from the fighting.

The 27-nation EU has long been deeply divided in its approach to Israel and the Palestinians, and the devastating Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 laid bare those differences. But as the death toll in Gaza mounts to nearly 32,000 people, more countries are supporting calls for a ceasefire.

In contrast, almost the entire bloc sees Russia’s two-year long war on Ukraine as an existential threat. They’ve poured billions of euros into supporting the country, by providing it with arms and ammunition and helping to prop up its war-ravaged economy.

“The response to the appalling crisis in Palestine has not been Europe’s finest hour, quite frankly,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, whose country is among the strongest backers of the Palestinians.

“I think it has been undermining particularly of our efforts to defend Ukraine because so many countries in the global south – also known as most of the world – interpret Europe’s actions in relation to Ukraine versus Palestine as double standards. I think they have a point,” he said.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo described the events unfolding in Gaza as “dramatic.”

“We see today people who are trying to feed themselves by eating grass. People who are on the verge of being in a famine. Europe needs to lead, and not to follow, and it is time for us to be clear: to demand an immediate ceasefire, to demand the liberation of the hostages,” he told reporters.

In a draft statement prepared for the summit, seen by The Associated Press, the leaders are due to lament “the unprecedented loss of civilian lives and the critical humanitarian situation. The European Council calls for an immediate humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire.”

The Israel-Hamas war has driven 80% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes, and U.N. officials say a quarter of the population is starving.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in the surprise Oct. 7 attack out of Gaza that triggered the war, and abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

Concern is mounting about an imminent Israeli ground offensive against Hamas in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city near the border with Egypt. It’s a plan that has raised global alarm because of the potential for harm to the hundreds of thousands of civilians sheltering there.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel can’t achieve its goal of “total victory” against Hamas without going into Rafah.

The EU leaders would also urge “the Israeli government to refrain from a ground operation in Rafah,” saying that “such an operation would have devastating humanitarian consequences and must be avoided.” The statement was a draft that could change by the time the summit ends.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a staunch ally of Israel who visited the country on Sunday, said that “we are not for a big offensive in Rafah. I stressed that in Israel myself, and we hope that a longer-lasting ceasefire will now be possible that is also linked to the release of all hostages and the handover of the dead.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that “what’s happening today in Gaza is the failure of humanity. It is not a humanitarian crisis. It is the failure of humanity.” The cause, he told reporters, “is not an earthquake, is not a flood. It’s bombing.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe