Ashton snubs Israeli proposal for Gaza force

Catherine_Ashton_07.jpg

A proposal by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann to end the blockade of Gaza if an EU force was sent to stop arms smuggling there was rebuffed by the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, during her two-day visit to the region.

"He [Liebermann] briefly mentioned this issue but it was not discussed," said Maja Kocijancic, a spokesperson for Ashton, from a convoy in the West Bank. She added that Ashton had told Liebermann that discussions would focus on the package that's already on the table.

"The crossings must be opened to allow the flow of humanitarian aid, imports, exports and people," Ashton said in a statement. "We need to enable children to go to school and ordinary people to reconstruct their homes and get on with their lives."

The EU foreign policy chief considers that recent Israeli decisions are steps in the right direction but that further efforts and complementary measures need to achieve a fundamental change of policy.

Over 5-6 January, Ashton held talks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, its Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann, the opposition Kadima Party leader, Tzipi Livni, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and its Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.

Andy David, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, described the EU-Israel talks as "friendly and fruitful" but played down the importance of Liebermann's proposal. "It's not a new idea," he said. "Those kinds of ideas are thrown [around] from time to time, not only by us but by others as well."

A foreign ministry communiqué said Liebermann had told Ashton that if Europe wanted to bring about an end to the siege of the Gaza Strip, it needed to take responsibility and "set up a strong, genuine and effective force to stop weapons smuggling".

Besides Gaza, the EU-Israel discussions also focused on what Catherine Ashton called "the current impasse" in peace talks. Her statement proposed that the 'Quartet' – the US, EU, UN and Russia – meet at the Munich security conference to "find a solution" for advancing peace talks in early February.

Tony Blair, the Quartet's envoy, also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Catherine Ashton's visit.

Meanwhile, the US State Department's special envoy, Dennis Ross, was due in the region, signalling a diplomatic flurry.

Hadi Shebli, who heads the Palestinian General Delegation's mission to the European Council, said that in New York, EU member states had given "positive signals" in response to the Palestinian plan to bring a resolution condemning Jewish settlements – couched in the language of the Obama administration – before the UN Security Council next week.

"They said it was a good proposal and that they could accept it because their position is also that settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law," he said. "But we should wait and see. In politics everything can change."

Shebli added that in his view the timing of a Knesset [parliament] decision to investigate the funding sources of several EU-financed Israeli human rights groups on Wednesday was "clearly chosen" to coincide with the arrival in the region of Ashton.

Hadi Shebli, the head of the Palestinian General Delegation to the EU, said: "We're looking to see all Gazan crossing points open, not just the goods crossing at Keren abu Seelem (Kerem Shalom in Hebrew) because that is only for goods and not people. We should also talk about the Karni crossing. The Israeli authorities still refuse its total reopening."

"We welcome the European proposal but we ask the Europeans also to do their best to convince the Israelis to open all the Gaza crossings. Without that, our people in Gaza will still face the same difficult life conditions," Shebli said. 

Andy David, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said: "The issue [about ending the blockade] is can there be a security guarantee? When we look at the issue we already have one model – in Lebanon - and it does not encourage us to relay on others – unless they are very serious."

"The ending of rocket fire is not a precondition [to ending the blockade], it just has to stop. It is unacceptable, full stop. What would the people of Belgium say if rockets were being fired at them on a daily basis? It is not even an issue for any kind of negotiation it has to stop full stop," David said. 

 

In December, the EU offered to fund infrastructure work to expand the capacity of the Kerem Shalom crossing point into Gaza, so that up to 1,000 trucks could pass through it daily.

It also offered to pay for the training of Palestinian Authority personnel so they could manage the crossings and increase the speed and volume of goods traffic into the besieged Strip.

The Gaza Strip has been blockaded by Israel and the rest of the world since 2007 and the UN says that 80% of its people are now dependent on food aid.

Israel says that its siege is intended to bring security to its southern population, which has faced rocket fire from the governing Hamas movement in Gaza, and other militant groups.

But official government documents obtained by the human rights group Gisha in October 2010 showed that a "deliberate policy of reduction" had restricted the supply of vital civilian staples such as foodstuffs, reconstruction materials and fuel for power plants.

 
  • Early February: Munich Security Conference.
  • April: Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for the Coordination of Assistance to the Palestinians meets in Brussels late spring. Commission has offered to host a second donor's conference.

 

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe