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Middle East: EU Rues Israel's 'Disproportionate Action'

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> Smoke billows from trucks burning in Beirut's port area (epa) The EU calls on Israel to show the "utmost restraint" in its military operations in Lebanon, but most EU ministers appear to agree the EU lacks leverage either over Israel or Hizballah.

BRUSSELS, July 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU today expressed its "acute concern" over the intensifying conflict between Israel and Hizballah.

EU foreign ministers adopted a declaration calling for an immediate end to the hostilities. Reflecting differing views among EU member states, the document appears worded to avoid apportioning blame. It notes Hizballah must immediately release the two Israeli soldiers it abducted last week, while adding Israel must show "utmost restraint" and not resort to "disproportionate action." The government of Lebanon is reminded of the need to restore its sovereignty over the whole of its territory.

The EU's foreign policy chief was at pains after the EU meeting to demonstrate EU support to Lebanon's government, stressing the Union does not wish to see it weakened any further.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, speaking on behalf of the EU's current presidency, indicated after the meeting that the Union a fears further deterioration of the situation around Israel and Lebanon.

"The discussion, and the tone of the discussion, reflected the serious concerns that we all share concerning the situation -- the humanitarian aspects, the aspects and the reflections it could have much more widely and even for global security," Tuomioja said. "There is still a threat or prospect of escalation and we of course urgently appeal for a cessation of all hostilities."

Hizballah, created in the 1980s to fight the then Israeli occupation of Lebanon, enjoys the active support of Syria and Iran. It is a minority partner in Lebanon's current government, but its forces operate outside government control.

The EU's high representative for foreign policy, Javier Solana, returned on Monday from a lightning visit to Beirut. He described the aftermath of Israeli strikes as "dramatic" and said Israeli forces had struck "very important elements of infrastructure."

Solana said that apart from disabling Beirut's airport, Israel has also rendered unusable most roads heading out of the country.

In the past few days, Israel has been conducting increasingly extended raids against targets in Lebanon. Aerial attacks against what were said to be military installations in Beirut over the weekend were followed by missile strikes against targets in the northern cities of Tripoli and Tyre. Dozens of civilians are reported dead.

Meanwhile, Hizballah has fired rockets into the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, killing at least eight civilians.

Lebanese Government, EU Citizens In Danger

Solana was at pains after the EU meeting to demonstrate EU support to Lebanon's government, stressing the Union does not wish to see it weakened any further.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja (AFP)

Finland's foreign minister said "thousands" of EU citizens are trapped in Lebanon. Although Tuomioja said the EU is not yet calling for their mass evacuation, he indicated many of them may be in mortal danger from Israeli strikes. Referring to the deaths of Canadian citizens last weekend, Tuomioja noted the victims "could easily have been Europeans."

Tuomioja said the EU expects Israel to "guarantee" the safety of vessels transporting EU nationals.

The Finnish foreign minister said he believes the conflict cannot be resolved militarily.

"We can sustain any peace in the Middle East only if there is a clear prospect for all parties of a better, more secure future, and this is now the one item which has been sorely lacking," he stated.

Tuomioja reiterated the EU's support for the efforts of the so-called Middle East Quartet, comprising the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the EU.

The EU itself lacks the means to influence the conflict in the short run. An overwhelming majority of its member states do not want to antagonize Israel. One EU official said on July 14 that "no one" within the union is thinking of evoking clauses in the EU-Israeli partnership agreement relating to the need to observe international law.

On the other hand, the EU possesses only minimal channels of communication to Hizballah. The EU's relations with Hizballah's main foreign supporters -- Syria and Iran -- have also deteriorated in recent months.

Asked if the EU is prepared to send peacekeepers to southern Lebanon, Tuomioja said it is a "UN issue." He said EU member states stand ready to take part in peacekeeping operations "if the conditions are there."