Ashton calls on Israel to ease Gaza blockade

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Israel should ease its Gaza blockade further and allow Palestinians to resume exports from the territory, the European Union's foreign policy chief said on Sunday (18 July) during a visit to the Hamas-controlled enclave.

"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," Catherine Ashton told a news conference.

Israel relaxed its land blockade of the Gaza Strip, where its Islamist Hamas enemy rules, after an international outcry over its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla on 31 May. But it still bans exports from the territory.

Ashton said she would discuss the issue later in the day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"At the moment, there is no proposal on the table to open a port," she said. "The best option seems to be, and that is the most supported by Palestinians, is to open the land crossings, and that's what we're working on."

In Gaza, Ashton visited UN facilities and was due to meet local businessmen. She had no plans to see leaders of Hamas, which the EU and the United States regard as a terrorist organisation.

In a press release following her meeting with Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Ashton is quoted as saying:

"Israel's new policy should improve the lives of the ordinary people of Gaza while addressing the legitimate security concerns of Israel. The position of the EU is clear: the blockade is unacceptable, unsustainable and counterproductive. It is not in the interests of any of those concerned."

"If we can be of value and the parties agree, the EU is ready to support a smooth handling of goods at the crossings, based on to the Agreement on Movement and Access. I fully agree that Israel's security is of paramount importance in moving ahead," Ashton further said.

Speaking in a school and summer camp in Gaza run by UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), Ashton said:

"There are small signs of change in policy to allow goods into Gaza, but we continue to call for the opening of the crossings to enable people and goods to move around. In particular, to allow the people of Gaza to run their businesses, to grow their own economy and in that sense to be able to offer a future to their children.”

"Improving the economic situation in the Gaza Strip is not simply a matter of letting in aid – it is a matter of revitalising the local economy with private sector development and commercial activity, including exports," Ashton is quoted as saying in a press release.

It was her second visit to the Gaza Strip in four months.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

A coalition of leading European and international NGOs believes that easing the Gaza blockade is not enough and has called on the EU to demand its full removal.

''While the changes in the blockade policy announced by the government of Israel on 20 June and 5 July represent steps forward, they fall short of what is needed to rebuild Gaza's economy and what is required by international law,'' the organisations say in a letter to EU foreign ministers and High Representative Catherine Ashton ahead of the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on 26 July.

To secure real progress towards fully lifting the blockade, the NGOs want the EU to press the parties on the ground to take action in five key areas: ending the ban on exports from Gaza; allowing movement of people into and from Gaza; ensuring sufficient capacity and efficiency of crossings; allowing the entry of construction materials for the private sector; and ensuring access to Gaza's agricultural land and fishing grounds.

''We believe that securing clear commitments on these issues – rather than only the implementation of the announced changes – should now be a top priority,'' the organisations argue in their appeal.

The EU should also work to ensure that they are central to the strategies of the whole Middle East Quartet, of which the EU is part, and of its envoy Tony Blair, they add.

Nine people were killed on 31 May when the Israeli navy intercepted ships carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists towards the Gaza Strip. The bloodshed sparked strong reactions of condemnation from the European Commission, the European Parliament and major political groups (EURACTIV 31/05/10).

The bloodshed has hurt Israel's diplomatic relations, especially with Turkey. The flotilla was organised, among others, by a Turkish human rights organisation. The nine people killed were Turkish nationals.

Recently a delegation of MEPs visited Gaza, despite Israeli disapproval (EURACTIV 26/05/10). The Israeli government has a policy of not facilitating the entry of political delegations to Gaza from its territory.

The reason for this policy, as the Embassy of Israel explained in a recent communiqué, "stems from Israel's clear attitude regarding Hamas [which controls the Gaza strip], a brutal terrorist organisation which openly calls for Israel's destruction and appears on the EU's list of terrorist organisations".

Upon their return, MEPs and European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek called for an end to the Gaza blockade.

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