Israel reacted with surprise Sunday to criticism by German Development Minister Dirk Niebel, who said Israel had made a "large foreign policy mistake" by not allowing him to visit the Gaza Strip, DPA reported.
"There is a clear policy," an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said. "We have explained that we do not allow the entry of foreign politicians to the Gaza Strip."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the German Press Agency dpa that Israel feared the Islamist
Hamas movement, which administers the coastal salient, would exploit visits by foreign politicians for propaganda purposes. This would also weaken the moderate, West Bank-based government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he said.
He added that Israel had no problem with visits to the enclave by foreign experts and officials who wish to observe development projects, or by representatives from multi-lateral organizations, such as the
Niebel had planned Saturday to visit a sewage plant financed by German development aid. He said Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip was "not a sign of strength, but evidence of unspoken fear."
German Foreign Minister
Guido Westerwelle added his criticism of Israel's stance on Sunday.
"I regret the decision by the Israeli government to deny minister Niebel entry to the Gaza Strip," Westerwelle said in a statement, in which he also called on Israel to completely drop its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Western countries have placed a diplomatic and political embargo on Hamas, after the organization, which won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, refused to change its charter to recognise Israel, renounce violence, and honour previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Israel imposed its blockade on the Gaza Strip in June 2006, after militants staged a cross-border raid and snatched an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who is still being held in the salient as negotiations for his release have so far come to naught.
The Israeli siege was tightened in June 2007, when Hamas militants seized control of the Strip's security installations, after routing officials loyal to Abbas and to the Palestinian Authority.
Shimon Peres said Sunday that Israel would end the siege if Hamas ended attacks against the Jewish state and released Shalit.