EU's Ashton to visit Gaza on Sunday during Middle East trip
The European Union's foreign policy director, Catherine Ashton, is to visit Gaza on the weekend, marking her second visit to the strip this year, officials confirmed Friday, DPA reported.
Israel normally shuts off the Palestinian enclave from international contact because it is run by Hamas, a militant Islamist group considered to be a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States.
But in a statement, Ashton said she would pay a visit on Sunday to a summer camp and a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, which is set to receive an additional 1 million euros (1.29 million dollars) in EU funding.
"The European Union has been calling for an urgent and fundamental change of policy regarding the closure of Gaza," Ashton said.
Israel has faced strong international pressure to relax its economic and political embargo on the enclave since its late-May raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, which left nine activists dead.
Last week, Israeli authorities moved to allow more goods into the territory, but news reports suggested Friday that Israel may be ready to go further by handing over security inspections of goods and people entering Gaza by land and sea to the international community.
Israel's biggest-selling daily, Yediot Ahronot, said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will make the proposal to Ashton, who he is due to meet on Sunday.
In her statement, Ashton said the EU - which in the past sent a short-lived mission to monitor the Rafah border crossing to Egypt - was "ready to support the opening of the Gaza crossings for the traffic of goods."
Over a three-day visit starting Saturday, the EU's top diplomat is also scheduled to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, while "direct contacts" with Hamas in Gaza are excluded, an EU spokeswoman said.
Speaking as White House envoy George Mitchell is in the region to conduct indirect peace talks, Ashton said she supports US efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis to move on to direct negotiations.
The EU's foreign policy supremo had already won permission from Israel to visit Gaza in March, the same month United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was allowed to enter.