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Minister Steinmeier in the German Bundestag on the situation in Gaza

14.01.2009 - Speech

Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, the fighting in Gaza has been going on since 27 December. That means 19 days of war, massive destruction and hunger. Casualties are mounting, the death toll is nearing 1000. The fighting continues – recently it has even intensified compared with the first few days. And there is clearly stiff resistance. The airstrikes are now being accompanied by operations on the ground. When I visited Rafah I saw with my own eyes how fierce the fighting is. I have an idea of what life is now like for the people still in the Gaza Strip. The civilian population is suffering, of that there can be no doubt. And the humanitarian crisis could become a humanitarian disaster. To the plight of the civilian population we cannot be – nor are we – indifferent. They need and have our sympathy.

Last weekend we had intensive discussions with the aid agencies in the region as well as the International Red Cross. At the moment the Gaza Strip still has sufficient supplies of medical drugs, the majority of hospitals and clinics are still managing to function, albeit with great difficulty, as we can imagine. But it was also clear, we were told, that the food supplies currently getting in will be inadequate if the fighting continues much longer. So let me state one thing very clearly at the outset: the fighting must be ended right now, the shooting must stop.

Saying this – of course as Foreign Minister I know how shocked we all are by what we see every evening on our TV screens and I well understand the outrage people feel – saying this will not be enough. I don't know of any case in recent years when press statements and communiqués rid the world of conflict. The only way to do this is by hard work. And that means also remembering that this war, Israel's military operations, did not come out of the blue. The prelude to the war, as you know, were the almost daily mounting numbers of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip especially during the second half of last year. I have publicly stated my view and stand by it now: no government – and that goes also and in particular for the Government of Israel – can fail to act in the face of such a threat to its citizens. To take counteraction is justified.

And it is certainly also right to argue that those who, through what was in effect a coup, are responsible for temporarily cutting off the Gaza Strip from the West Bank have not assumed responsibility for the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. They do bear some responsibility for the outbreak of the hostilities now causing such suffering to the civilian population. Under such circumstances questions have been openly asked about who is to blame, but clarifying such issues is not going to help get the fighting stopped. That will happen only if we play our part in ensuring the success of initiatives such as that of President Mubarak of Egypt aimed at bringing about a ceasefire.

That is a point we have not reached yet. My talks in Israel brought home to me very clearly that if we are to achieve what we are waiting and hoping for every single day, namely, an end to the fighting, two things are necessary. Firstly, Israel needs an assurance that its population will enjoy greater security once the current hostilities are over, which means steps must be taken to ensure Hamas will not be able to rearm any time in the near future. And secondly, I am sure an end to the hostilities, if it is to last, will require also that we come to some arrangements regarding the opening of the border crossing points so that the needs of the civilian population can once again be supplied on an ongoing basis.

Over the past few days I've read a host of cutting comments about the role the EU has been playing. I can agree with anyone who reminds us how bad it is when EU representatives in the Middle East voice differing opinions or compete with another. But that's beside the point.

Just imagine the current Czech Presidency had opted not to visit the region after the fighting broke out. The criticism would have been no less and might even have been more severe. Those who valiantly attempted what was then – ten days or a fortnight ago – still an almost impossible task cannot be criticized, I believe, for not succeeding already after the first visit, the first talks, in getting a halt to the fighting.

What is important at this state is that a dialogue has begun. We are continuing this dialogue, and we Europeans are consulting as closely as we possibly can in this connection. On my visits to Egypt and Israel my delegations included representatives of the Czech Presidency. On the subject of our talks in Egypt, Israel and throughout the region we liaise closely with our French and British neighbours.

Where are we now? Egypt plays a key role and has taken on a great responsibility also in view of the complex situation in the Arab League, where its mediation efforts are the target of some criticism. Egypt deserves wholehearted support in its direct talks with Israel aimed at achieving the result we need, namely, whatever is necessary to secure an assurance from Hamas that no more rockets will be fired, so that Israel can then end its military operations. That is difficult enough.

In this situation, where the hoped-for agreement has yet to be reached, I have reached an understanding on five points with our partners in the region: what we need right now is to initiate a process. If immediate agreement on a ceasefire is not on the cards, we must get this process under way by calling for a humanitarian truce for a few days, better still for a week or – even better – for two weeks.

Once such a humanitarian truce is in place, we must use the time to get in needed supplies for the civilian population. Simultaneously we must engage in intensive diplomacy aimed at agreeing on new arrangements to bolster security along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip and on a package of measures that, in the very near future, will make it possible to prevent arms smuggling more effectively than in the past.

We can use the period of the humanitarian truce to reach appropriate accords with Egypt. In a subsequent phase we can prepare for a controlled opening of the border crossing-points. When I speak of border crossing-points, let me point out that I mean not just Rafah, not just the crossing-point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt but also the border crossing-points between Gaza and Israel, through which most of the goods needed to supply Gaza's population are imported.

We also need to think – even if the idea seems pretty abstruse right now – about what alternative income-generating activities can, at some further, final stage, be offered to those whose livelihoods currently depend on smuggling across the border running east and west of Rafah. This is no easy problem for Egypt, but one we Europeans can help them deal with. I firmly believe that a work programme such as I've described – we're taking it forward right now – can create the conditions for achieving a ceasefire as soon as possible.

Talks on this are under way. I myself will be leaving for the region again tomorrow. Egypt has accepted the support of the European Union and of Germany, too. This support must be in a form that ensures Egyptian sovereignty is respected. That is why all the proposals I've read about with interest in the media for an international protection force stationed on Egyptian territory are completely unrealistic.

Egypt insists nothing must be allowed to compromise its sovereignty or the authority of its own border police. So for us that means we can only help with equipment, technical aids, training, discussing an appropriate border management strategy and so on. But if all these, as the Israeli side tells me and us, are the kind of things that can make border management more effective, then they also mean for the Israelis that they can reckon with a greater measure of security, enhanced security for the Israeli population.

At present we are in an interim phase. In our debate today I had hoped to be able to tell you how successful the efforts to bring about a ceasefire had been. But we're not there yet. The efforts to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible will continue. Together with others I will be working strenuously over the next few days to achieve that goal.

Thank you very much.

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