Top Western officials rush to Middle East in effort to stop Israel-Hamas war from spreading

US and EU leaders insist they stand with Israel even amid growing calls for restraint in the Gaza Strip.

Top Western officials rush to Middle East in effort to stop Israel-Hamas war from spreading

Top U.S. and European officials scrambled to the Middle East on Friday to try to stop the Israel-Hamas war from spreading, amid mounting fears Israel is gearing up for a massive land assault on Gaza by calling for the evacuation of over 1 million people.

As Israel pummels the Gaza Strip and the civilian death toll there climbs past 1,500, according to the Gazan health ministry, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have urged Israeli forces to show restraint in their war against Hamas’ Islamist militants.

Some European officials have gone further, with top EU diplomat Josep Borrell saying Israel had broken international law by cutting off food and water from the Gaza Strip, and criticizing the order to evacuate civilians from the blockaded area as “unrealistic.”

Any order of evacuation for civilians “must be realistic and this is utterly unrealistic to leave in 24 hours,” Borrell told journalists in Beijing. Israeli officials have said they did not put a time limit on their evacuation order.

But the main message from U.S. and European officials on Friday was still one of steadfast support for Israel, which is hitting back after Hamas rocket barrages and deadly raids killed some 1,300 people on Saturday.

Hours after Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets onto the Gaza Strip ordering residents to leave toward the south, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Washington’s unwavering support in Israel’s war against Hamas, which he compared to the Islamic State group.

“We’re with you,” Austin told Netanyahu as the two huddled in Jerusalem. “We have your back … These were disgusting acts by this terrorist group. And as you know, I was the guy who initially put the [2014] ISIS campaign [targeting the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq] together. I know a lot about ISIS and this is worse than what I saw with ISIS.”

Top European officials like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Parliament chief Roberta Metsola, who also arrived in Jerusalem on Friday — and had to take refuge in a bomb shelter when an air raid siren went off during their meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog — struck a similar note of solidarity with Israel.

The two EU officials toured Kfar Azza, an Israeli community adjacent to the Gaza Strip that was the site of some of the worst atrocities by Hamas militants.

“The horror of what happened here is unspeakable,” von der Leyen, who wore a flak jacket as she toured the area with Metsola, wrote on X. “We mourn with the families of the victims.”

So far, Western diplomatic efforts have been focused on trying to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading via the involvement of anti-Israel groups in neighboring Lebanon, Syria or Iran. The Iran-linked Hezbollah group has been launching rockets into northern Israel for the past few days, but so far has stopped short of seeking a bigger confrontation.

Still, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned that opening other fronts in the Israel-Hamas war was a “real possibility.”

There are mounting fears Israel is gearing up for a massive land assault on Gaza by calling for the evacuation of over 1 million people | Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

With a U.S. carrier strike group making a show of force in the Eastern Mediterranean, Blinken met on Friday with King Abdullah of Jordan and the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas as part of a tour of six Arab countries.

During his meeting with Abbas, Blinken had “reiterated that Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to dignity, freedom, justice, and self-determination,” according to a State Department readout.

With the death toll escalating from Israel’s bombardments, Hamas — which controls the Gaza Strip — has ordered residents not to leave their homes, while Egypt, which controls Gaza’s southern border, has rejected requests to accept fleeing residents, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi urging them to “remain steadfast” on their land.

An EU official with knowledge of the trip, who was granted anonymity to discuss the agenda, said Metsola would press Israeli counterparts to try to mitigate the impact of the Gaza offensive, open humanitarian corridors and avoid targeting civilian infrastructure.

The bloc’s diplomatic efforts have been under fire after Brussels did a U-turn earlier this week on suspending EU aid for the Palestinians. Adding to the confusion is an apparent difference in views between Borrell, who said Israel was breaking international law while other senior EU figures who have steered clear of making that claim. 

Von der Leyen has so far been steadfast in her support for Israel and has not applied any pressure in public remarks. But members of her conservative European People’s Party held an informal summit early Friday to define their latest position on the crisis, calling for the EU to “speak with one voice” and vowing in a statement to “ensure that civilians do not become the target of further hostilities.”

The statement also addressed EU aid for the Palestinian territories.

“We believe that Hamas does not represent or speak for the Palestinian people, therefore European Union must continue,” it read. “However, it is the responsibility of the EU to carefully review the financial assistance for Palestinians and ensure the funding does not end up in the hands of Hamas or any other terrorist organization.”

Nahal Toosi in Washington contributed reporting.