The EU envoy for peace in the Middle East: ‘Cutting off access to water and food is illegal’

Sven Koopmans says, in an interview with EL PAÍS, that the UN Security Council resolution on the ceasefire in Gaza is binding and that there is an ongoing effort to find a solution so that a safe Israel can coexist alongside a free Palestine

Sven Koopmans
Sven Koopmans, European Union Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, in his office at the European External Action Service, this Thursday in Brussels.Delmi Alvarez
María R. Sahuquillo

The European Union’s Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Sven Koopmans, states that the situation in Gaza, under Israeli strikes and with hardly any access to humanitarian aid, is “absolutely atrocious and beyond comprehension.” Koopmans defends the need to stop the conflict and find a sustainable solution. A Dutch lawyer and diplomat who had been working on the peace process for almost three years and has had to recalibrate the EU’s plans after the Hamas attacks of October 7, Koopmans proposes a comprehensive project, with security guarantees for Israel —“it will only make peace if it feels safe enough”—and a free Palestine. He also urges food deliveries to the Strip, where children are dying of hunger, to end the killing and to free the hostages.

Question. The situation in Gaza is critical. The deaths of civilians, journalists and humanitarian workers, many of them turned into targets, are counted in the tens of thousands. What else needs to happen to start the peace process?

Answer. The peace process was already necessary even before October and all the terrible things that have happened since then. Israeli air strikes are known to have killed nearly 33,000 people, not counting those lying under the rubble. And there are tens of thousands of injured. There are also hostages who are still, six months later, inside the Hamas tunnels; that’s terrible too. And now Gaza is facing an imminent famine, or it may even already be happening. There are reports that dozens of children have died from hunger or lack of food. The situation is absolutely atrocious and incomprehensible. The European Union has been clear and united in the necessity of an immediate humanitarian pause leading to a lasting ceasefire, because this situation is just not acceptable or sustainable for anyone. We now need the start of a peace process, which we already needed before October 7, when the completely condemnable and atrocious Hamas terrorist attacks took place. The urgency is evident.

Q. There are those who accuse Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza. You are a lawyer, do you believe what is happening is legal?

A. We have international courts, and the International Court of Justice is currently dealing with this issue. Let’s leave it in their hands. My job now is to be a diplomat and work for peace. But the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, has already been very clear on this subject since the early days after the attacks, and I fully subscribe to it: cutting off access to water and food is illegal, as is the expansion of settlements. All that is obvious.

Q. With the current terrible situation, do you see any window of opportunity for dialogue and a peace plan?

A. Yes. Although I say it with a feeling of tragedy, because no one wants to build something positive over such rubble of horror. It is very difficult to think about tomorrow when today is so terrible. We need to bring food to the starving children, stop the killing and free the hostages. This is urgent today, but we must prepare for tomorrow and for a sustainable peace solution.

Q. If the ceasefire finally occurs, what is the roadmap you have designed?

A. No more roadmaps, no one believes in them anymore. We are approaching this by what we call reverse engineering: we must start with the last step, the day after peace is signed, when there would be a secure Israel next to a free Palestine. For that next day, we need to have an incentive package ready that we are working on with the Arab partners (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League). It doesn’t just mean opening an embassy or exchanging diplomats, it goes beyond that. It means an Israel integrated into the Arab region. It means regional free trade agreements, water, energy, climate change. There will have to be security guarantees for Israel from Europe, the United States and other countries. And once there is a state, Palestine, that addresses the needs of the Palestinians, the UNRWA [UN Palestinian refugee agency] will no longer need to exist. In addition, there will be a peace fund to which Europeans and Americans and many others will contribute. Perhaps imagining the actual day of peace between Israelis and Palestinians alone will not bring peace, but it will bring it closer. We need them to negotiate their own agreements, but we can make peace more attractive for them.

Koopmans, during the interview.
Koopmans, during the interview.Delmi Alvarez

Q. How can you make it more attractive to the Israelis, when they do not even listen to the ceasefire requirements or the warnings from the United States, a key actor?

A. It’s terribly difficult. I understand, to the extent possible from the safe environment in which we live, the trauma of the October attacks. And I also see the trauma from which Israel emerged, which is part of its identity, but also a core part of the genuine fear that Israelis had for their country, for their future. It is our responsibility to help Israel find a secure future. But we also see that the security response of the last 30 years did not work. Building so many walls and having the strongest army in the region did not prevent the attacks of October 7. We need a secure Israel alongside a free Palestine. Otherwise, Palestine will be a stateless territory. And that is dangerous. There are many elements of the peace commitment that will be very positive for Israel, diplomatic, commercial, economic.

Q. With its abstention in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. allowed a resolution to pass demanding an immediate ceasefire, but then said that it was not binding...

A. A Security Council resolution is binding. Israel and Hamas must abide by it. Regarding full access for humanitarian aid, which was also required, it is obvious that Israel does not respect that resolution. It is not being implemented and that is unacceptable. It goes against everything the European Union stands for. We see children die of hunger because it is not applied.

Q. Are you worried about regional escalation?

A. A lot. It is extremely dangerous, and this is a euphemism for the region, because what does dangerous mean when so many people in the region have already died because of this conflict? And we see the escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, with Iran and with the Houthis in the Red Sea. Nor should we forget the situation in the West Bank, where more than 400 people have died, the vast majority Palestinians. The current escalation of fighting must stop.

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