Germany's Foreign Minister Says Hamas 'Deliberately Escalated' Tense Situation With Israel

European Union foreign ministers debated Tuesday how best to use their nations' political clout to help diplomatic efforts to end the violence between Israel's armed forces and Palestinian militants, the Associated Press reported.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Israel had the right to defend itself against rocket fire from Hamas.

"With its rocket terror, Hamas has deliberately escalated a situation that was already extremely tense, with terrible consequences for Israelis and for its own civilian population in Gaza," Maas said.

He said the European Union needs to look at how to prevent a repeat of the violence in the future, beyond just ending the current conflict.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Palestinians Demonstrators Wave Flag
Palestinians demonstrators wave their national flag (top) and green Hamas banner (bottom) during protests against Israel's occupation and its air campaign on the Gaza strip, in the occupied West Bank town of Hebron, on May 18, 2021. The U.N. Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting amid a diplomatic push to end the conflict in Gaza that has killed more than 220 people. Hazem Bader/Getty Images

The EU has been united in its calls for a cease-fire and the need for a political solution to end the latest conflict—now in its second week—but the nations are divided over how best to help. No firm decisions involving threats of sanctions or other measures are likely from the ministers' videoconference.

At least 212 Palestinians have been killed in heavy airstrikes, including 61 children, and over 1,400 people wounded, Gaza's Health Ministry said. At least 12 people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy, have been killed in rocket attacks launched from Gaza toward civilian areas in Israel.

Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel early Tuesday.

The EU is the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinians but holds little influence over the militant group Hamas or the state of Israel, despite having some trade arrangements that are favorable to the Israelis.

Before the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted that he had an exchange with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on how the United States and the bloc "can jointly contribute to end violence" and to reduce tensions.

"Looking beyond, we also need longer term initiatives to break the dynamics of conflict and revive the prospect of a peaceful future for all," wrote Borrell, who is chairing the meeting.

"The weapons must finally fall silent," Maas said. He emphasized the role of the international diplomatic Quartet, in which the EU is represented by its new Middle East peace envoy Sven Koopmans, and said "we are in favor of further expanding his mediation efforts."

The Quartet's other three members are the United Nations, the U.S. and Russia.

"The EU must play a role here, in political and humanitarian terms," Maas said, adding that he would press Tuesday for better humanitarian supply lines into Gaza.

"We must use our relationships with both sides to encourage confidence-building steps that could lead to calming the situation both inside Israel and in the West Bank," he added. "Only that way will it be possible to talk again about a lasting solution to the Middle East conflict."

Heiko Maas Gives Statement About Israel Conflict
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas gives a statement ahead of a virtual meeting of European Union foreign ministers at the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, on May 18, 2021. Markus Schreiber/Associated Press