Israel’s allies shift away from unconditional support

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s push for a “pause” in Israel’s assault on Gaza has highlighted how allies are pivoting from unconditional support for Israeli self-defence to a focus on the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory.

In the weeks following the October 7 attack by Gaza-based Hamas militants who killed 1,400 Israelis, mainly civilians, Israel’s allies have largely avoided urging restraint in its military response.

Over the past 10 days, amid soaring numbers of civilian casualties and brutal imagery of Israel’s air and ground assault on Gaza, a significant shift in tone and rhetoric has occurred, with western allies calling for pauses in the conflict in order to help protect the enclave’s non-combatants, and free hostages held by the terror group.

“We need to do more to protect Palestinian civilians,” Blinken said on Friday in Tel Aviv after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he had provided “advice that only the best of friends can offer” on how Israel could protect civilians while proceeding with its military operation.

The US top diplomat’s shift echoes a rising tide of public and private pressure from European, Latin American and other capitals on Israel to allow “humanitarian pauses”, particularly after the bombing of the Jabalia refugee camp this week.

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Antony Blinken, US secretary of state
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state in Tel Aviv on Friday © Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

French president Emmanuel Macron on Friday called for such pauses, adding: “The fight against terrorism does not justify the sacrifice of civilians.” France will host a humanitarian aid conference for Gaza next week.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, in a meeting on Thursday focused on “the humanitarian crisis in Gaza”, according to their statements that did not mention Israel. Sunak and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni also “agreed to support both Israeli and Palestinian civilians now and in the future”.

EU leaders have rejected pleas from Netanyahu to lobby Egypt to open its border with Gaza and accept Palestinian refugees, while countries led by France and the Netherlands have in recent days moved ships close to the Israeli coastline and requested access to land humanitarian cargoes in Gaza’s port.

“The key thing is to do this in a way that the Israelis do not feel like we are abandoning them or do not care about what they are going through,” said one senior European diplomat. “It’s about expanding our message to them, not changing it.”

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EU leaders meeting in Brussels last week deplored “all loss of civilian life” and called for “the protection of all civilians” and “humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs”.

At that summit, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez argued that a strong focus on humanitarian protection was not an anti-Israeli approach but would help Israel, according to people briefed on the debate. Sánchez told his fellow EU leaders that it was in Jerusalem’s interest to ensure its military response did not make Israelis into international pariahs.

The Spanish government rejected the notion that it is taking a “pro-Palestinian” stance, an idea that one official described as ideologically charged. Instead it is taking a “balanced position”, the official said. “It is about protecting the civilians. All the civilians.”

The European shift comes as Latin American leaders express mounting unease over Israel’s attack on Gaza. In Brazil, the region’s diplomatic heavyweight, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has described the unfolding events as “genocide”.

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Mexico has joined Brazil in calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, with leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador brushing off Israel’s criticism of his failure to condemn Hamas. “We don’t want violence, we are pacifists,” he said.

Cynthia Arnson, distinguished fellow on Latin America at the Wilson Center in Washington, said the region had “quickly shifted focus from the atrocities committed by Hamas to the pummelling of Gaza. That shift was related to the magnitude of the Israeli assault and the fact that so many civilians have died and been injured.”

Chile, home to more than 400,000 Palestinians, the biggest community outside the Middle East, has recalled its ambassador to Israel, as has Colombia. Bolivia has cut off diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

“If Israel does not stop the massacre of the Palestinian people, we can’t be there,” said Colombian president Gustavo Petro when announcing the recall of his ambassador.

Argentina, home to Latin America’s biggest Jewish community, has been more nuanced. But the country’s foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the Israeli attack on Jabalia, saying that “nothing justifies the violation of international humanitarian law”.

Additional reporting by Sarah White in Paris