GAZA CITY: The European Union’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton called for the further easing of Israel’s four-year blockade of the Gaza Strip during a visit to the impoverished Hamas-run enclave on Sunday.
"The answer here is opening the crossings," Ashton told reporters on her first visit since Israel’s deadly May 31 seizure of a Gaza-bound aid fleet sparked international demands to lift the closure.
"People here recognize and understand the security needs of Israel," she said at a press conference held at a UN-run school for Palestinian refugees.
"But that should not prevent the ability to be able to see the free flow of goods into and out of Gaza in order that houses can be rebuilt, children can go to fully functioning schools and businesses can flourish."
She said the European Union was willing to send monitors to help operate the crossings, but they would have to have a clear role and work alongside the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007.
She said, however, there was "no proposal on the table" to reopen Gaza’s sole port.
At the height of the international uproar that followed the flotilla raid, in which nine Turkish activists were shot dead, Israel said it would begin allowing all purely civilian goods into Gaza.
It said it would also allow building materials into the territory but only for internationally supervised projects and that its naval blockade would remain in place to keep the Islamist Hamas movement from importing military-grade rockets and other weapons.
The European Union welcomed the changes but has pressed Israel to allow for freer travel and the export of goods manufactured in Gaza, where the near-collapse of the private sector has spawned 40 percent unemployment.
"What we have today is 75 percent less (volume of traffic) than what we had in the first half of 2007… That’s not what we are looking for," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said on Saturday.
"The economy of Gaza cannot be sustained only by importation. There needs to be exports," Fayyad told a joint press conference with Ashton.
Ashton was to press those concerns throughout her three-day Middle East trip, which also includes meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting US envoy George Mitchell and other officials.
She had no plans to meet anyone from Hamas, which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by the West because of its refusal to recognize Israel and its commitment to armed struggle.
In Gaza, Ashton visited the UN-run school, which now serves as a summer camp, as well as factories damaged during a devastating Israeli offensive at the turn of 2009.
She was also to visit local businesses co-financed by the EU through its private sector reconstruction program and a school for the deaf.
The British baroness was named last year as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, a new position that was created to give the 27-nation bloc a single voice on the world stage.
Her visit came as Mitchell held a sixth round of indirect peace talks between Israel and the West Bank Palestinian leadership in a bid to relaunch direct talks suspended after the Gaza war erupted in December 2008.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has thus far rejected US and Israeli demands for direct talks, insisting that the two sides first make progress on the thorny issues of final borders and security.
Israel first imposed its blockade on Gaza in June 2006 after Hamas and other militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a deadly cross-border raid. The 23-year-old is still being held at a secret location.
The sanctions were tightened a year later when Hamas seized power after driving Abbas’s forces out in a week of fierce street clashes.