EU diplomat raises Gaza pressure

Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, urges the international community to pressure Israel to ease its siege of the Gaza Strip.

European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton sits with Palestinian children during her visit to a summer camp run by the United Nation (UNRWA) school in Gaza city on July 18, 2010. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS *** Local Caption ***  029389-01-08.jpg

TEL AVIV // Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, urged the international community yesterday to pressure Israel to take further steps to ease its siege of the Gaza Strip and allow its Palestinian inhabitants to export goods from the seaside territory. Ms Ashton, the most senior diplomat to visit Gaza since Israel's deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for the territory, said: "The position of the EU is very clear: that we want the opportunity for people to be able to move around freely or to see goods not only coming into Gaza but exports coming out of Gaza." She later added that "what needs to happen now is continued international pressure to move forward".

Israel's ban on exports from Gaza, part of a hermetic blockade it imposed on the enclave's land crossings, waters and airspace when it was taken over by Hamas in June 2007, has contributed to a severe crippling of the impoverished territory's economy and spurred unemployment of about 40 per cent. Despite recently relaxing its blockade to allow most consumer goods to enter, the country still restricts the import of construction supplies and raw materials that are desperately needed by industrial companies. Israel also prevents most Gazans from leaving or entering the territory.

During her tour of Gaza, the EU's top diplomat visited factories destroyed during Israel's three-week onslaught on the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009. She also visited businesses such as Megapharm pharmaceuticals - a company which had been mostly shut since June 2007 until recently, when Israel eased its embargo, but claims that the export ban is limiting its growth - and pledged that the EU will work to bolster the private sector.

One local entrepreneur, Amr Hamad, the deputy head of the Palestinian Federation of Businesses, told Ms Ashton that only about 30 per cent of Gaza's 3,900 factories and workshops are currently operating, some at limited capacity and with supplies from smuggling tunnels dug under the Egypt-Gaza border, according to the Associated Press. Mr Hamad added that he expects only a few hundred factories and workshops to resume operating as a result of Israel's recent easing of some restrictions.

Commenting on Israel recently lifting some restrictions, Ms Ashton said: "The living conditions and the economic situation haven't changed so much and what is needed is to completely reopen the crossing points of Gaza to enable the population to run their business and their factories and rebuild their life and the future of their children." Ms Ashton told journalists that she would raise the issue with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, whom she was due to meet in Jerusalem late in the day. She added: "At the moment, there is no proposal on the table to open a port. The best option seems to be, and that is the most supported by Palestinians, is to open the land crossings, and that is what we are working on."

Citing security concerns, Israel has so far indicated that it will not completely open the border crossings, despite escalating international pressure to lift the blockade and increasing acts of protest such as recent attempts by activists to break the maritime siege by sailing to Gaza. Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli information minister, said: "I hope that following the visit of the European foreign minister in Israel, she will understand that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We have opened all we can and we have gone a long way toward the civilian population."

Nevertheless, Ms Ashton said that the EU was prepared to send monitors to help operate the land crossings between Israel and Gaza, but that they needed to have a clear role and work alongside the Palestinian Authority, which is run by the Fatah movement that was routed by Hamas from Gaza three years ago. During her Gaza visit, part of a three-day Middle East trip, Ms Ashton did not hold talks with Hamas officials. The organisation is viewed by Israel, the US and the EU as a terrorist organisation.

Ms Ashton's tour of Gaza came as Mr Netanyahu met with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, in Cairo yesterday, for talks that were likely to also address the Gaza blockade and a possible further easing of it. Indeed, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, reported yesterday that Egypt was angry at remarks made last week by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's far-right foreign minister, that the country should sever all ties with Gaza. The controversial Israeli diplomat had proposed that Israel shut down all border crossings with Gaza and allow movement in and out through the sea and through Egypt's Rafah crossing in southern Gaza.

According to the report, Mr Mubarak was expected to ask the Israeli premier to clarify the remarks and was likely to make clear that Egypt will not tolerate any Israeli bid to burden it with total responsibility for the territory.