GAZA CITY: Arab League chief Amr Moussa called Sunday for Israel’s four-year siege on the Gaza Strip to be broken as he made a landmark visit to the impoverished Palestinian enclave.
The visit, Moussa’s first to Gaza as Arab League secretary general, comes as appeals mount for the opening of Gaza’s borders after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists when they raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla on May 31.
"This blockade, which we are all here to confront, must be broken and the position of the Arab League is clear," Moussa said after being welcomed at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt by officials from many Palestinian factions.
"Not only the Arabs, but the entire world should stand with the Palestinian people against the siege of Gaza and what is happening in the occupied territories, especially east Jerusalem," he said, referring to Jewish settlement growth in the annexed Arab half of the city.
It was the first time that Moussa visited the besieged coastal strip since he became the head of the 22-member pan-Arab organization in 2001, though he had visited Gaza in the 1990s as Egyptian foreign minister.
The Islamist movement Hamas that rules Gaza hailed the visit by Moussa, the most senior Arab leader to set foot in the Palestinian enclave since it won landslide parliamentary elections in 2006.
"This visit should be a step towards lifting the siege of Gaza," Yussef Razqa, an adviser to Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya, said in a statement.
"The Arab League has already adopted a clear position on the necessity of lifting the siege, it’s just a question of implementation," he added.
The 10-hour visit, announced shortly after the flotilla raid, was also aimed at reviving reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ secular Fatah movement, which was ousted from Gaza when the Islamist movement seized power in June 2007.
"Reconciliation is the basic and principle question. It is a question of will and not a mere signature — it’s a will, it’s a policy, it’s a position that translates into an agreement on all issues," he told reporters.
"History does not halt before a sentence here or a paragraph there."
Egyptian efforts to broker an agreement between the two main Palestinian movements collapsed in October 2009 when Hamas refused to sign an agreement approved by Cairo and Fatah.
On Sunday, Moussa toured some of the areas most devastated by Israel’s December 2008 assault on Gaza, in which some 1,400 Palestinians were killed and thousands of homes were seriously damaged or destroyed.
Thirteen Israelis were killed during the war, which was launched to stem years of near-daily rocket attacks from the territory.
Moussa was to meet later with Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya at the latter’s home in Gaza City, as well as visit the headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides vital aid to over one million Gazans.
Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants have been under by a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on the territory in June 2006 after militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a deadly cross-border raid.
The blockade was tightened a year later after Hamas seized control of the enclave, with Israel and Egypt sealing the territory off from all but basic humanitarian aid and strictly limiting travel in and out.
Two weeks ago, a six-ship flotilla carrying 10,000 tonnes of supplies tried to bust the blockade and reach Gaza, but was stormed by Israeli navy seals in a botched operation that sparked international outrage.
International fury over the blockade had a galvanizing effect on Cairo, which quickly moved to reopen the Rafah crossing just days after the raid, allowing travelers and humanitarian aid to pass, but not commercial goods.
Israel has said the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from importing weapons and insists the humanitarian needs of Gaza’s people are met by the dozens of truckloads of basic goods it allows in most days.