France charts an independent course on Gaza
Although France still considers Hamas a terrorist organization and has strongly condemned its Oct. 7 attacks, French President Emmanuel Macron has spearheaded efforts to stop the war in Gaza, improve humanitarian conditions and address the underlying Palestine-Israel conflict.
France broke ranks with the US at the UN Security Council by supporting drafts, which the US eventually vetoed, calling on Israel to protect civilians and abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law. On Oct. 27, it voted in favor of the UN General Assembly Resolution on Gaza, which the US and a handful of European countries voted against, while most other European countries abstained.
Then, on Nov. 9, Macron hosted the International Humanitarian Conference for the Civilian Population in Gaza, which represented the clearest sign of France’s determination to lead on these issues. About 80 countries and organizations gathered, at short notice, at the Elysee Palace, including heads of states and governments and leaders of international organizations. They included UN organizations that have lost staff in the war; scores have been killed in Israel’s indiscriminate attacks, more than in any previous conflict. They were, in the words of one speaker, “the thin line between tragedy and safety, between slaughter and humanity.”
At the start of the conference, the organizers apparently wanted to avoid discussing political issues for fear that they would be divisive. As such, they presented a purely humanitarian agenda, focusing on four key points: Ensuring adherence to international humanitarian law; protecting civilians and humanitarian workers; responding better to health, water, food and energy needs; and mobilizing more funds to match those growing needs.
France broke ranks with the US at the UN Security Council by supporting drafts calling on Israel to protect civilians
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
As delegates listened to compelling testimonies from relief groups, they were horrified by Israel’s war tactics. Led by Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, they demanded an immediate ceasefire and an end to the siege and collective punishment of Gazans. Egeland, a former state secretary in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and later a UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said it is an “affront to humanity and humanitarian law to wage war around, from and on hospitals in Gaza.” He added: “Surely now there must be a universal call for a full ceasefire and release of the hostages. History will judge the parties and the bystanders.”
Martin Griffiths, the current UN top relief official, was equally forceful, saying that “the situation is insupportable. To allow it to continue would be a travesty.”
Then, speaker after speaker condemned Israel’s actions, which have clearly breached international norms. They called on world leaders to push for an immediate and sustained ceasefire, better humanitarian access and compliance with the rules of war. Speakers from the US and the handful of countries that had expressed support for Israel in the past joined in, decrying the massive loss of life and the need for more effective aid delivery for the beleaguered civilian population.
Mobilizing funds was not the primary goal of the conference because the problem in Gaza is more of access than lack of funds, although more is needed. The most urgent concern is that Gazans’ access to aid is limited by Israel’s tight siege and relentless bombardment, making it difficult for relief supplies to reach the civilian population. In addition, Israel has completely stopped supplies of fuel, which is essential to the operation of hospitals and water treatment facilities. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there was no pressure to announce financial pledges, about $1 billion in aid was announced during the conference.
While calling for the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid and better access, most delegates also suggested that negotiations would be a better approach to getting hostages and civilian detainees released, as well as discussing the future of governance in Gaza.
Many also called for reenergizing the peace process toward a two-state solution along the 1967 lines as the only sure way to guide the region back to a path of peace and reconciliation.
Some expressed concern that Israel’s rogue behavior, if not checked, will undermine respect for the rule of international law
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Those speaking at the summit also called for concerted efforts to stop the Gaza war from spreading further to the West Bank. UN representatives reported that more than 150 Palestinians had been killed in the West Bank since Oct. 7, both by settlers and by Israel’s security forces. Many families and a number of communities have been uprooted and made homeless by settler violence, often in concert with the army.
Some expressed concern that Israel’s rogue behavior, if not checked, will undermine respect for the rule of international law. It could also spread to the wider region and the rest of the world and cause youth radicalization, as happened in the past. For example, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the bloody siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982 begat Hezbollah. Macron expressed concern about such radicalization happening in France itself.
After the conference, Macron made his new position clearer. He told the BBC that “the clear conclusion” of all governments and agencies present at the summit was that “there is no other solution than first a humanitarian pause, going to a ceasefire.” He added: “De facto — today, civilians are bombed — de facto. These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop.”
The Paris conference was a clear diplomatic success for the French presidency. It succeeded in articulating five key principles in addressing the Gaza war.
First, more pressure is needed to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and basic human dignity. This means that civilians must be protected and their essential needs met, wherever they are in Gaza. UN representatives stressed that they cannot be part of Israel’s pushing of hundreds of thousands of desperate civilians in Gaza into so-called safe zones.
Second, humanitarian relief supplies, including fuel, should be permitted into Gaza safely, without impediment, reliably and at scale.
Third, an immediate ceasefire should be the main objective and priority.
Fourth, this conflict should not be allowed to spread into the West Bank or the wider region.
Fifth, multilateral and diplomatic efforts must be maximized to arrest this vicious cycle of violence by reenergizing the peace process toward a two-state solution in a fair and comprehensive solution along well-known international parameters.
- 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