Ashton: Israel should open Gaza crossings, allow exports
Israel should allow exports from the Gaza Strip, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton said Sunday, as she toured the enclave and said the EU would continue to demand that its crossing terminals become completely operational, dpa reported.
"We will keep pressuring for reopening the Gaza crossing points to improve the economical conditions in the Gaza Strip and make a better future for its population," she told reporters while visiting a United Nations school.
"I will be in Gaza again in a few months to make sure that the economy of the Gaza Strip is growing and improving," she added.
Ashton was scheduled to hold talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later Sunday, after meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah on Saturday.
Israel last month relaxed its four-year-old blockade of the strip, which is controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement. The easing came amid international pressure following the Israeli seizure of a Gaza- bound aid flotilla in May, which left nine Turkish activists dead.
While most types of civilian products are now allowed into the impoverished salient, Israel still prohibits the import of weapons or any materials that Gaza militias could use for weapons production.
Exports from the strip are also still banned, and the movement of people is tightly monitored. The Rafah terminal, Gaza's sole crossing point to the Arab world, also remains shut - although Egypt does open it sporadically for limited periods of time.
Ashton was the first EU official to enter Gaza after the blockade's partial lifting.
She met private businessmen and officials from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency there, signing an agreement contributing 2 million euros (2.6 million dollars) to support the agency's summer camps and other programmes.
Ashton did not, however, hold talks with Hamas leaders.
Most Western countries have placed a political and diplomatic boycott on Hamas, after the organization rejected calls to renounce violence, honour past Israeli-Palestinian agreements and recognize Israel's right to exist.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Ashton's visit to Gaza "will be an opportunity for her to closely see the difficult and tragic humanitarian situation of the Palestinians in Gaza Strip."
"We want this visit to completely end the Israeli siege," he added in a statement.
Ashton, meanwhile, had said that the Gaza visit would be an opportunity to see first-hand the effects of the Israeli decision to ease its blockade.
Her visit coincided with the arrival in the enclave of goods from a Libyan-backed aid ship, which had tried to reach Gaza on Wednesday but decided not to breach the Israeli naval blockade, instead docking in the nearby Egyptian Sinai port of el Arish.
The Israeli blockade was first imposed in 2006, after Gaza-based militants staged a cross-border raid and took an Israeli soldier captive.
The siege was tightened a year later, when Hamas seized control of the enclave from the Fatah-run administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.