EU's Ashton makes rare diplomatic visit to Gaza
The European Union's foreign affairs supremo, Catherine Ashton, arrived in the Gaza Strip on Thursday to check how EU aid is spent and to see for herself the conditions under which Palestinians there live, DPA reported.
Ashton, making a rare foray into Gaza by a top EU diplomat, was to visit locations hit during last year's conflict.
She was also slated to meet with United Nations officials and Palestinian notables, but would not be holding talks with officials from the Islamist Hamas movement, which administers the strip.
Western countries have introduced a political and diplomatic boycott of Hamas after the organization won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections but refused international requests to renounce violence, honour past Israeli-Palestinian agreements and change its charter to recognise the Jewish state.
Israel, for its part, enforced a stringent blockade of Gaza in June 2006, after Palestinian militants led by Hamas snatched an Israeli soldier during a cross-border raid.
Three Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations praised Ashton's decision to visit Gaza, seeing her trip "as proof of the growing opposition to Israel's policy to isolate Gaza from the rest of the world and collectively punish its million and a half residents, more than half of whom are children."
In a joint statement, the three organizations - Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Adalah and Al Mezan - also called on the Israeli government "to see Ashton's visit as an opportunity to lift the siege and rebuild the civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip."