EU foreign policy chief to visit Gaza

Catherine Ashton travels to Gaza in a rare visit by a senior Western official to the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory.

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The EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton travels to Gaza today in a rare visit by a senior Western official to the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory. She is the first senior European diplomat to secure Israeli permission to visit the Gaza Strip since the Israeli assault more than a year ago. Earlier this week Lady Ashton condemned Israel's plan to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem at a speech she made to the Arab League in Cairo and expressed her intention to visit Gaza during this week's trip. "The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable. It has created enormous human suffering and greatly harms the potential to move forward," she said on Monday. The EU is a major contributor of aid to Palestine, providing ?1 billion (Dh5bn) a year, including support to Palestine refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Lady Ashton said: "I will travel to Gaza myself to meet with the population and at the same time assess how our support is working on the ground." The EU presently supports the present West Bank prime minister Salam Fayyad's state building plan. "Continued Palestinian divisions do not serve their interests," she added. "The political and physical separation between Gaza and the West Bank is dangerous. Palestinian reconciliation is more crucial than ever." Lady Ashton, 53, a former junior minister and leader of the House of Lords before becoming EU trade commissioner in 2008, was appointed high representative amid the horse trading that eventually resulted in Herman van Rompuy, the Belgian prime minister, getting the job as the EU's first full-time president. Tony Blair had been regarded as the natural choice for the presidential post. But when this was blocked by Europe's smaller nations, the post of high representative was offered to a UK candidate as an apparent consolation prize. The job, which is arguably more important than the president's, is to represent the EU at summits throughout the world. But David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, turned it down and prime minister Gordon Brown, to virtually everyone's astonishment, put forward Lady Ashton. With reporting from AFP