Top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton concluded her Israel visit, demanding Israel lift its Gaza blockade and offering Europe's help to secure borders and rebuild the Strip.
Ashton with new ally, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton demanded a total lift of Israel's blockade on Gaza and promised EU measures to improve living conditions in the Strip. She has now concluded a three-day visit to Israel and Palestinian territories that was largely focused on Gaza but did not include a meeting with the region's ruling Islamist group, Hamas.
During her second visit to Israel and the Gaza Strip in four months, Ashton demanded that Israel allow Gaza to export goods in order to boost its economy. She also indicated that the EU was prepared to help open up Gaza by helping monitor goods transported across the Strip's Israeli and Egyptian borders.
Providing a "better life for ordinary people"
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Ashton presented the Western-backed Palestinian Authority with nearly 5 million euros ($6.5 million), the first tranche of a 22 million euro EU grant to support private sector development in Gaza.
During her visit to Gaza City, Ashton visited two companies that are already receiving EU funds intended to rebuild Gaza's economy.
Ashton met with Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad to discuss Palestine's future
The EU envoy stressed that she was "very keen" to "provide for the better life for the ordinary people of Gaza - a better life than the one I saw today."
"People here recognise and understand the security needs of Israel," she said at a news conference held at a UN-run school for Palestinian refugees, adding, "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."
An unexpected ally
On her visit, Ashton met an unexpected ally, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In a joint press conference with Ashton on Sunday, Lieberman, who is a member of the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu party, declared his support for a two-state solution of sorts.
Lieberman announced his controversial plan, not yet approved by the Israeli cabinet, to lift the blockade on Gaza entirely, while at the same time cutting Gaza off from the Israeli state.
Lieberman said his plan would rely in part on European Union monitors at the Gaza crossing points.
Ashton took Lieberman's plan as a positive sign, stating that if the EU could "be of value, and the parties agree, we are ready to support a smooth handling of goods at the crossings based on the agreement on movement and access."
Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been in Hamas captivity for four years
On Monday the EU's top diplomat met with the parents of captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has been detained in Palestinian hands since a deadly border raid in 2006.
"In all the statements that I have made, in all of my meetings, the issue of Gilad Shalit's release is part of what we are demanding," Ashton said after her meeting with the soldier's parents.
Hamas has offered Shalit's release in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners - including top militants responsible for deadly attacks.
Shalit's father, Noam Shalit, told reporters he had requested that Ashton "demand progress in negotiations for Gilad's release before requesting humanitarian gestures in Gaza."
Ashton said she believed that lifting Israel's four-year blockade on the Strip would expedite Shalit's freedom.
No meeting with Hamas
Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza four years ago
Though Gaza constituted the main topic of discussion throughout Ashton's meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the West Bank and Gaza, she refused to meet with Gaza's rulers, the Islamist group Hamas, which has been in power in the Strip since 2007.
"I did not meet Hamas. I do not meet Hamas," Ashton said of her decision not to see the organization that the EU has deemed a terrorist group.
Nevertheless, Ashton called for the resumption of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and condemned Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority intends to make the capital city of its future state.
Author: Iris Makler, David Levitz (AFP/dpa)
Editor: Susan Houlton