It is almost midnight when Josep Borrell arrives at his hotel in Jerusalem after a grueling day. This is his first visit to Israel since he assumed the position of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs in 2019. Despite his fatigue, he begins to speak before the journalist can ask a question or activate the voice recorder. His passion and interest in a region to which he also has a personal connection is evident. In 1969 he spent a summer working as a volunteer in a kibbutz, where he met his first wife. He remembered it hours before, on a visit to Beeri kibbutz, where Hamas militants killed and kidnapped dozens of people on October 7. The surprise attack led to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, resulting in more than 13,000 dead and entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. It also transformed the visit that Borrell had planned, once the Israeli authorities stopped unofficially vetoing him for his alleged bias towards the Palestinians.
The diplomat admits that, at such a sensitive time, it is not easy to convey to his Israeli interlocutors that not only was the Hamas attack “terrible” and “unjustified,” but also that “one horror does not justify another horror,” “war has its rules,” and that the humanitarian situation in Gaza today is “absolutely horrific.” In short, “the problem cannot be solved with the mass exodus of more than two million [Gazans],” but with a political solution that guarantees Israel the security that its numerous soldiers and its expensive technological barrier around Gaza could not give on October 7. This Monday he will share the conclusions of his regional tour of the region, which has taken him to Palestine, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, with the Foreign Ministers of the EU’s 27 Member States.
Question. A long day with many meetings?
Answer. We have to talk to everyone right now. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is absolutely horrific. Horrific. The Israelis themselves have explained to us how it is, but, of course, they have a less dramatic view and [say] that Hamas is to blame. The United Nations has a reliable and impartial view. There are one and a half million displaced people. Israel wants to offer them a safe haven, but it is very small and people are afraid of going there and then not being able to get out.
UN agencies cannot replace the ordinary functioning of an economy of more than two million people. With the means they have, they cannot suddenly feed the population every day and guarantee services. The Israelis blame the Palestinians for destroying the land crossings. In reality, they probably don’t have much interest in opening them either.
The trucks are entering in dribs and drabs. The humanitarian situation is very, very, very serious. What does Israel want? The Israelis told us clearly today that they do not want to stay in Gaza. But also that they want to secure Gaza. The question remains: how is Gaza secured, then? My message, which I think has become clear, is: “Listen, what [Hamas] has done to you is horrific, terrible, an unjustified attack against the civilian population. But war has its rules. And the bombings have to take into account the victims they are creating.”
There are satellite photos where you can see entire blocks, entire blocks, flattened. The Israelis explain that there are Hamas tunnels underneath, that they have to do it because they are hidden underneath. They may be, they may not be, I personally don’t know. They [the Israelis] suspect they are.
Everything depends on the release of the hostages. If they are released, the big question is: what do we do with the Gazans? There may be more than 10,000 fatalities, but there are still more than two million people.
Q. Even if the hostages are released, will Israel maintain its goal of ending Hamas?
A. What is ending Hamas? And then there is the growing violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, which is talked about very little. We had a meeting with President [Isaac] Herzog. It went well. I happen to be a bit pro-Palestinian, so I feared there would be a colder reception, but no. He was happy that we went and expressed our feelings, but they do not consider that there is such a serious problem of violence in the occupied territories. They are called that: occupied territories.
It has not reached the level of the bombings in Gaza, but there has been a very strong increase in violence in the West Bank. In fact, the army was not guarding the Gaza border [on October 7] because it had been redeployed to the West Bank. We are concerned about a new explosion of violence in the West Bank, where the Palestinians have little ability to defend themselves. There have been 400 deaths since the beginning of the year, 200 since October 7. And finally there is the internationalization of the conflict, meaning Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is an increasingly intense artillery and missile duel.
Imagine that there is a truce and trucks are allowed to cross [into Gaza]. How long do the United Nations have resources to fuel a continuous flow of aid? If they suddenly said: ‘Five days of fully open crossings,’ we would have to think about where the resources would come from to help so many people. And we [the EU] have increased a lot in aid, up to €100 million [$109 million].
Q. Regarding the idea you came with before, what impression did you get from your meetings with the Israeli leaders?
A. I already knew that they are in the position in which they have to put an end to Hamas. The retention speech, well, yes, they are taking it into consideration. We met with their very well coordinated humanitarian cell. They are very careful to document everything they do, because the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation [on the October 7 attacks].
But I don’t think they will stop until the hostages are released. And we, my speech at least, as you have already heard, says that one horror does not justify another horror. If they [the Israelis] want to build peace, they cannot sow more hatred now. And what comes next? Nobody wants to talk about the day after. Actually, the day after is now. The Arabs tell you: ‘People are dying and you tell me that we have to hold a conference in six months.’ And the Israelis don’t want to talk about the day after either because they don’t know when and how this will end. They don’t want to stay, but they want to secure Gaza. OK, very good. But how do you do that? Not even Hamas has called for a ceasefire. They have died from success. They did not expect to be able to cause so many deaths and destruction. They met with no resistance. I don’t think they expected to be able to penetrate so deeply. And, above all, for so long.
There is an amount of accumulated hatred... And the feeling among the relatives of the victims and the [Israeli] hostages: ‘They are doing it to us because we are Jews.’ All the red lights of the Holocaust are flashing. After what happened, the two-state solution… As President Herzog says: ‘Who will guarantee my security? If they did that while in Gaza, how is that [future Palestinian] State going to work?’
Q. That goes back to what you said earlier: that no technology or barrier [guarantees Israel’s security]...
A. That has been proved. It is either a political solution, or it will continue like this for generations. Two peoples facing off over the same land has been going on for more than a century. It is not easy coming here to tell you what I have told you. They want unconditional support. The ‘yes, but’ does not satisfy them.
And then the deaths of children [in Gaza]. They have shown us the horrible photos of the massacres in the kibbutz [in reference to those shown this Thursday by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen], but those from the Gaza hospitals must also make your hair stand on end.
Q. I would like to go back to what you said before about the basis being the release of the hostages. There would be a pause of sorts, but wouldn’t the bombing continue afterwards?
A. That is why the hostages are not being released. They are bargaining chips. Maybe they will release the most troublesome ones, the most difficult to maintain. Some are sick, imagine their emotional state, their hygiene, the food conditions, and their health...
Q. Why did you feel the need to remind [the Israelis] that all lives are worth the same?
A. Because the Arabs say that, for us, not all lives are worth the same. At the peace conference in Cairo in October they said it at the highest political level: ‘For you Europeans, it is clear that the life of a Palestinian is not worth the same as the life of an Israeli. Don’t talk to me about human rights anymore.’ They throw it in your face.
Different European leaders express themselves differently. And I have to represent everyone. There are countries, like Spain, that are calling for a ceasefire. [The Prime Minister] Pedro Sánchez fought hard for that. [French President Emmanuel] Macron said the other day: ‘Israel has to stop killing women and children.’ But there are other European leaders who have not expressed similar condemnations.
Q. And how do you manage to deal with those differences?
A. A lot of the time I don’t [he laughs]. At the United Nations [on October 27], four [EU countries] voted against a ceasefire, eight voted in favor, and the others abstained. The meeting point is abstention. But if there are four countries that say: ‘No, I am not abstaining, I’m voting against’, another eight will say: ‘Well, I am in favor.’ It is a very divisive issue in Europe. There are countries that are in a position that is very conditioned by their history. And they tell you: regarding Israel, it is as if it was us. And then there are others, like Spain, that do not have the same history or feeling of guilt but, rather, the complete opposite. [There is] a clearer sympathy for the Arab world.
Europe has unity in this because everyone in the European Council approved a common position in the end. But as soon as we have to face a vote in the United Nations, the differences emerge. And I can’t tell them to vote what I want them to; foreign policy remains the responsibility of each Member State.
Q. What do you expect from the regional tour?
A. A conceptual framework must be built. It is clear that this has a political solution or there is no solution.
My conceptual framework is the three yeses and the three noes: No to Hamas staying in Gaza, no to Israel keeping it, no to the forced displacement of people [out of Gaza].
The three yeses are these: Yes to the Palestinian Authority, but it cannot go it alone. Yes to the Arab States committing themselves, but not only to paying for reconstruction. And yes to Europe taking action on the matter and not remaining isolated and letting the US and the Arab world fix the solution. We are great at being a good Samaritan, but it is not just about helping to heal the wound, but about building a state.
Q. Is EU able to play that role?
A. We are. We have spent our lives building institutions from the Caucasus to the Balkans. But that involves a strong commitment. Neither the Europeans, nor the Arabs, nor the United States can [do it alone]. It has to be the will of the international community. The problem cannot be solved with the mass exodus of more than two million people.
Q. Doesn’t Israel oppose the Palestinian National Authority taking over the government in Gaza the day after?
A. Someone has to step in. We also don’t know when it will be and how things will turn out. What I do know is that there has been a moral and political responsibility of the international community, that for 20 years we have been saying ‘two states, two states, two states’ and doing little to nothing to make it a reality. Israel doesn’t want it. It hasn’t wanted it since [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was killed [in 1995]. It has been in the hands of governments that do not want it. Extremists on both sides have made it impossible.
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