Israel-Hamas clashes and the new GCC-EU security dialogue

Israel-Hamas clashes and the new GCC-EU security dialogue

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The Joint Council of EU and Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers started their two-day meeting in Muscat on Monday, two days after Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel. The annual meeting had a crowded agenda but the events in Israel and Gaza took priority. Initially, many were confused about the extent and nature of the attacks and, assuming that they were a repetition of previous small-scale acts by Hamas, dismissed them.

When more gruesome details emerged, there was first disbelief and then horror and disgust at the horrific killings, torture and humiliation of hundreds of civilians. Israel’s past behavior toward Palestinians should not justify Hamas’ targeting of innocent civilians. It is true that there is a long list of Israel’s past transgressions: massive and indiscriminate bombings of Gaza’s crowded neighborhoods, collective punishment inflicted on Palestinian civilians, massive deaths, deportations, arbitrary detentions, land appropriations and home demolitions. Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank have also continually harassed Palestinians, destroyed their homes and farms and killed them with impunity at times, in addition to repeated incursions into and desecration of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Things have taken a turn for the worse under the current government, as some of these actions were supported, instigated or led by some of its senior members.

But no matter how awful those Israeli practices were, civilians on both sides should be spared. Hamas fighters’ disregard for human life and dignity was horrifying, but Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank should not be made to pay for those fighters’ sins. While there was consensus at the meeting on these points, there was concern about sending the wrong message to either side. Hamas should not be under the illusion that its justifications for the attacks of Oct. 7 were acceptable and Israel should not think that it has a license to retaliate by attacking civilians at will in Gaza or the West Bank.

Hamas fighters’ disregard for human life and dignity was horrifying, but Palestinian civilians should not be made to pay

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

At the conclusion of its deliberations, the GCC-EU Joint Council issued a statement expressing “deep concern” about those “grave developments” in Israel and Gaza, deplored violence and condemned “all attacks against civilians.” It also reminded the parties to the conflict of their obligations under the universal principles of international humanitarian law not to harm civilians. It further called for calm and restraint “on all sides” and the release of hostages. Reacting to Israel’s declaration of a total siege that sealed Gaza and completely isolated it, the ministers called for allowing access to food, water and medicines. They also stressed the urgent need for a political solution to the crisis to “avoid repeating this vicious cycle of violence.” The ministers resolved to continue consulting on the matter and remain engaged.

At the same time, both sides insisted on making a clear distinction between Hamas’ actions and the disciplined Palestinian Authority and maintained their traditional positions on the peace process. They supported the efforts currently being undertaken by Saudi Arabia, the EU and the Arab League to revive the Middle East peace process, in cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, to help put an end to the violence and start on the path toward peace and security.

The foreign ministers reiterated their shared commitment to a two-state solution, living securely side by side, based on the 1967 lines, “in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative and all relevant UN resolutions.” They opposed any unilateral steps and called for the maintenance of the “historical and religious status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem,” and a just and fair settlement for refugees.

While some fringe groups suggested the suspension of aid to the Palestinians following Hamas’ attacks, the consensus that emerged stressed the continuation of financial support for UNRWA, the PA and for the Palestinian population’s humanitarian and development needs.

It is probably too early to ascertain any direct outside involvement in Hamas’ decision to attack on Saturday, but Iran and its regional proxies (such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen) have declared their full support. Regardless of whether they had a hand in this operation, Iran and Hezbollah stand to gain from reigniting the conflict. Extremists in Israel also benefit. Both are opposed to compromises and are happy to derail any reconciliation or political deals.

Israel received much sympathy after the attacks but that sympathy is eroding as it pummels Gaza, toppling residential towers and meting out collective punishment, wholesale destruction and massive loss of life of innocents. Those attacks could also complicate ongoing mediation to release the hostages taken on Saturday.

The two sides agreed to organize a high-level forum on regional security and cooperation in Brussels in the near future

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The depth of the discussions around Palestine-Israel issues anticipated the nature of the nascent GCC-EU “strategic partnership,” which the foreign ministers announced in February 2022. The two sides then made clear that it would include security issues and dialogue on regional crises. The Joint Action Programme (2022-2027), approved last year, also included some security cooperation. However, the details remained relatively undeveloped until the Muscat meeting, where the foreign ministers stressed the special importance of this partnership “in the light of growing serious threats to regional and international peace, security and stability,” as well as “challenges to the global economy,” spelling out that part in some detail. To activate that cooperation, they decided to hold a “regular and structured GCC-EU regional security dialogue” at the level of senior officials and establish joint working groups when needed, within the framework of this security dialogue, to coordinate efforts on regional and global issues.

The ministers also directed their senior officials to explore the potential for GCC-EU coordination on the EU initiative for a Coordinated Maritime Presence in the northwest Indian Ocean.

In addition to these mid- and working-level meetings, the two sides agreed to organize a high-level forum on regional security and cooperation in Brussels in the near future to complement the work undertaken at official GCC-EU meetings. In June, Italy’s former Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio was appointed as the EU’s first special representative for the Gulf region, tasked with implementing the EU’s new Gulf strategy; he will likely be instrumental in any high-level security discussions.

In some ways, dialogue has already started on a number of security-related issues, including Ukraine, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and the Horn of Africa. The next months should witness energized discussions on these and the other security issues flagged by the two sides for dialogue. They include nuclear, missile and drone proliferation; maritime security; cybersecurity; counterterrorism; terrorism financing, recruitment and ideology; human trafficking; drug trafficking; irregular migration; organized crime; and energy security, the security of global food supplies, disaster preparedness and emergency response. A very ambitious list indeed.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1
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