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Israel faced growing pressure from its European allies over the humanitarian cost of its offensive against Hamas, as the UK, Germany and France stepped up calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The calls on Sunday for a pause in the fighting from three of Israel’s closest allies came as Israeli protesters urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate another hostage release deal with Hamas, the armed group that controls the besieged coastal enclave.
Israel has seen some of its most significant demonstrations since the outbreak of the war on October 7 after its army admitted on Saturday that it shot and killed three Israelis who were waving a white flag and presumed to have escaped from Hamas captivity in the strip.
“We must do all we can to pave the way to a sustainable ceasefire, leading to a sustainable peace,” said the foreign ministers of Britain and Germany, David Cameron and Annalena Baerbock. “The sooner it comes, the better — the need is urgent.”
During a visit to Israel, French foreign minister Catherine Colonna also called for a “new humanitarian truce”, saying that it needed to be a lasting one that should lead to a ceasefire.
France was “highly concerned” by the situation in Gaza, said Colonna, adding that “too many civilians are being killed”. Israel’s air and ground war has flattened large parts of northern Gaza, killed almost 19,000 civilians, according to Gaza’s health ministry, and driven most of the population to the southern part of the Palestinian territory.
The 10-week bombardment of Gaza, triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack when militants killed about 1,200 Israelis and took about 240 people hostage, has sparked increasing unease among Israel’s allies about its conduct of the war. US President Joe Biden last week called its bombing “indiscriminate”.
The scale of destruction led to an overwhelming vote in support of an immediate ceasefire in the UN General Assembly last week. However Baerbock and Cameron stressed that they did not believe that was the right way forward.
Such an approach, they said, would not change Hamas’s “murderous ideology” or lead to the release of hostages.
“An unsustainable ceasefire, quickly collapsing into further violence, would only make it harder to build the confidence needed for peace,” the two ministers wrote in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper.
Relatives of the approximately 130 hostages still in Hamas’s hands and other protesters held a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening where they repeated demands that Netanyahu engage in negotiations to secure their release.
In response, Netanyahu said Israel “will continue to fight until the end. We will achieve all of our goals: eliminating Hamas, releasing all of our hostages and ensuring that Gaza does not again become a focus of terrorism”.
Israel’s western allies are having to tread a delicate diplomatic path that maintains support for Israel in its fight against Hamas, which they designate as a terrorist organisation, while also seeking to rein back the intensity of Israel’s military operations and advocating for a two-state solution.
Baerbock and Cameron recommended a three-step process. The “Israeli government should do more to discriminate sufficiently between terrorists and civilians”, they wrote. More aid needed to be delivered “to ordinary Palestinians” and Israel needed to clamp down on extremist settlers in the West Bank who have forced Palestinians from their homes.
Nearly 300 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank during a surge in Israeli raids and settler violence since October 7.
Netanyahu’s rightwing government could face further pressure to rein in its military campaign when US defence secretary Lloyd Austin visits Israel next week.