BRUSSELS — Israel’s top diplomat in Brussels said he wanted support from EU countries to keep his country’s war against Hamas in Gaza from spreading elsewhere, days after more than 900 people died after Hamas’ attacks.
“We hope and we ask the EU or international community to pass a strong message to Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, this is [only] with Gaza,” Haim Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the EU and NATO, told POLITICO in an exclusive interview.
Since then, Israel engaged in retaliatory strikes in Gaza and Israel’s defense minister imposed a “complete siege” on the Hamas-led territory, cutting off electricity, fuel and food to 2 million residents. The war’s death toll on both sides totaled nearly 1,600 people Monday evening.
The Israeli army continued to exchange fire with gunmen on its northern border with Lebanon since Sunday. Hezbollah — a Lebanese militant group and political party — denied involvement in the latest bout of fighting.
Having declared war, Israel’s sole focus, Regev said, is to completely disable Hamas’ military capabilities. He warned Israel’s neighbors not to wade into the conflict. “Because Israel is going to retaliate … and it’s better that Lebanon, Hezbollah, West Bank, stay out of that,” said Regev, ahead of an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers Tuesday.
“The EU is a player here, the EU has its own contacts with Lebanon, they’re supporting Ramallah, it should be clear [with them],” he added.
The EU’s response Monday was muddled and divided. Olivér Várhelyi, the commissioner for the EU’s neighborhood and enlargement, announced a suspension of millions of euros of development aid to Palestinians.
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn was the first to criticize the announcement, with countries such as Spain and Ireland following with their own dissension.
Later Monday, the European Commission announced that it would review aid to the Palestinian Authority but cleared up: “In the meantime, as there were no payments foreseen, there will be no suspension of payments.”
Regev also said Israel will call for international assistance to rescue an estimated 100 civilian and military hostages Hamas kidnapped and took into Gaza, both dead and alive.
“The EU has designated Hamas as a terror organization but we want to see more pressure all around that they will not get anything, no support, nothing, as long as they are there [and they are holding them] hostage,” he said.
“They are innocent civilians; they cannot be part of any negotiation, or any discussion.”
He played down the potential impact the war could have on ongoing talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations, which was seen by some analysts as one of the potential factors behind Hamas’ decision to strike when it did due to its own close ties with Iran, which would be unsettled by the new relations.
“It should not be related,” the ambassador said, adding “of course” it’s possible for the negotiations to continue.
The ambassador said he couldn’t state whether Iran, the main backer of Hamas, was directly involved in these attacks.
“There are enough other tools that the EU [has] to put more pressure on Iran. But Iran here is not the issue,” he added.
Expressions of solidarity with Israel have come from the EU’s senior leadership, ranging from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, which Regev said was “appreciated” in Jerusalem.
Brussels and Jerusalem are organizing a phone call between von der Leyen and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said.