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Israel has become locked in a diplomatic dispute with Spain and Belgium after it accused the EU countries of supporting terrorism in response to their prime ministers’ criticism of its bombardment of Gaza.
The Israeli and Spanish foreign ministers exchanged harsh words and summoned each other’s ambassadors for reprimands as the dispute spiralled on Friday while Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo continued a visit to the Middle East.
Speaking in Jerusalem alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, Sánchez had said the number of civilians killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza was “unbearable”.
And on Friday on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, Spain’s leader said Israel was not acting within the limits of humanitarian law. “The indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, including thousands of boys and girls, [is] completely unacceptable,” he said.
His words, and similar sentiments expressed by De Croo, drew a sharp response from Eli Cohen, Israel’s foreign minister. “We condemn the false claims of the Prime Ministers of Spain and Belgium which support terrorism,” he wrote on X.
“Israel is acting in accordance to international law and is fighting a murderous terrorist organisation worse than Isis, that is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Cohen wrote.
Spain was taken aback by the Israeli foreign minister’s response, said one Spanish official. Foreign minister José Manuel Albares in a statement on Friday night condemned Israel’s “false, misplaced and unacceptable accusations”.
Albares said Israel’s response was “especially serious” because it was aimed at the Spanish prime minister, whose country holds the six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, and the leader of Belgium, which takes over the same role on January 1.
At the Rafah crossing, De Croo said Israel’s military operation had to respect international humanitarian law. “The killing of civilians needs to stop now. Way too many people have died,” he said. “The destruction of Gaza is unacceptable. We cannot accept that a society is destroyed in the way it is being destroyed.”
The diplomatic dispute broke out on the day that Hamas released 24 hostages who had been held in the Gaza Strip while Israel freed 39 Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal on a ceasefire that is due to last for four days.
Referring to the temporary truce, which follows more than six weeks of war, Cohen wrote: “After the pause, we will resume combat operations until Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip is eliminated and all the hostages are released.”
EU countries and G7 members were united in their condemnation of Hamas and the October 7 attack that killed about 1,200 Israelis. But they have been divided over how much pressure to put on Israel to rein in its bombardment and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Spain has consistently spoken up for Palestinians and Sánchez on Friday called for the EU to formally recognise the state of Palestine.
Spain’s foreign minister stressed his country had condemned Hamas, expressed solidarity with its Israeli victims and called for the unconditional release of all hostages seized by the group that runs Gaza. But he said that was “not incompatible” with Madrid’s call for Palestinian civilians to be protected.