The Czech EU presidency has called for the negotiation of a ceasefire in reaction to Israel’s launch of ground operations in the Gaza Strip. Israel sent troops and tanks into Gaza after a week of air strikes, intensifying operations to try and stop rocket attacks by militants. Earlier, an emergency UN Security Council meeting failed to see agreement on a united approach to the conflict in Gaza. More than 400 Palestinians were killed in air strikes in the preceding days: ground clashes have seen dozens of additional casualties on both sides, sources have reported.
In an official statement on behalf of the EU presidency, the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has stressed that the right to defend one’s nation does not allow for actions largely affecting civilians. At the same time, the foreign minister stated that Israel’s decision to send in ground forces was “not surprising”. Along with negotiations towards a ceasefire, the Czech EU presidency is urging for humanitarian aide to be made available to Gaza Strip inhabitants. Mr Schwarzenberg left for the Middle East on Sunday, heading an EU mission focused on the current conflict. Other officials on the mission include EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Prior to the team’s departure on Sunday, she stressed that the violence on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides needed to stop.
Prior to his departure for the Middle East on Sunday, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg indicated that he had a plan on how the EU could help broker an eventual ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, but declined to reveal details beyond the fact that the EU had a humanitarian role to play. The minister discussed the current conflict on public broadcaster Czech TV. He said that although some might question Israel’s reaction, the blame for the conflict lay firmly with Hamas, which he called a terrorist organisation. Mr Schwarzenberg also indicated, in his view, that Israel was aware of its worsening position on the international scene each day that operations - with additional wounded and dead - continued. During the Middle East mission, Mr Schwarzenberg will stop in Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said on Sunday that a spokesman for the EU presidency, currently held by Prague, had blundered in describing Israel's ground assault in Gaza as "defensive." "It was his personal mistake," he told Czech TV, adding it was a "serious one." On Saturday Jiří Potužník, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek's EU presidency spokesman, initially described the Israeli operation as "more defensive than offensive." and told AFP this was the position of the Czech prime minister for the European presidency. The Czech Foreign Ministry later changed tack, while Mr Potužník himself said his words had been misunderstood. The statement on Saturday was denounced by an aide close to the Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well by the radical movement Hamas.
Importer RWE Transgas has reported a five percent drop in natural gas supplies to the Czech Republic from Russia. According to the firm, the drop is related to an ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine. A spokesman called the development the “first signal of the Russia-Ukraine crisis in the Czech Republic”, adding there would be no effect on Czech customers thanks to reserves and alternative supplies from Norway. Russia cut off shipments to Ukraine on January 1 in a dispute over prices and on Saturday energy giant Gazprom charged that Ukraine was illegally siphoning off supplies intended for EU countries. Others who have seen a drop in supplies include Hungary and Poland.
Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, of the Civic Democrats, has dismissed as “aggressive rhetoric” a call by Bernd Posselt, the leader of the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft, for the Czech Republic to rescind the Beneš decrees. The decrees led to the expulsion of Czechoslovakia's Sudeten German population of around 2.5 million after World War II. On Friday Mr Posselt said the Czech Republic should take advantage of its EU presidency to lift the decrees and, in his words, “come to terms with its own history”. But Mr Zahradil responded by saying that the Czech EU presidency would definitely not deal with matters which he said had already been addressed – and closed - on bilateral as well as multilateral levels.
For the first time Czech betting firms on Monday will launch online internet gambling: five of the largest gambling firms in the Czech Republic have been allowed by the Finance Ministry to operate the service. Gamblers who wish to bet on-line will first have to register in person at bricks and mortar betting shops. The service is expected to raise the amount spent on betting in the country, currently at around 12 billion crowns per year (the equivalent of around 622 million US dollars).
In National Hockey League action, Czech forward Michal Frolík scored the final goal for Florida on Saturday in the Panther’s 6:1 romp over Pittsburgh. The forward scored in the 45th minute, his 7th goal of the season. Czech goalie Tomáš Vokoun was not in net for Florida in the win; goaltending duties in the match were instead covered by Craig Anderson.
The Czech presidency of the European Union has called for the quick resumption of full deliveries of Russian natural gas supplies to EU member states, after learning on Friday that deliveries from Russia through Ukraine to countries like Hungary and Poland had seen a considerable decrease. Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, on behalf of the Czech EU presidency, stressed that the EU needed to avoid similar such developments in the future. In its dispute with Ukraine, Russian energy giant Gazprom cut off supplies to the country this week and accused Ukraine on Friday of illegally using gas designated for the EU. The European Union is pushing for an urgent resolution to the dispute, setting an extraordinary meeting of EU representatives in Brussels on Monday.
In related news, Gazprom export head Alexander Medvedev told journalists in Prague on Saturday that responsibility for problems in gas supplies to some EU countries lay with Ukraine; he said the state had failed as a transit country. He accused the Ukrainian state-owned Naftogaz of not having paid for supplies and of “stealing gas”. He stressed that EU commitments had to be honoured.