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EU's top diplomat visits Gaza, pushes for open borders

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton pressed for the further easing of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip during her visit to the region. Ashton said goods should also be allowed out of the region in future.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton

Ashton wants Israel to allow the flow of people and goods "in both directions"

On her second trip to the Hamas-controlled territory in four months, Ashton said she wanted Israel to further lift its four-year blockade of the enclave.

"The position of the EU is very clear," Ashton told a news conference. "We want the opportunity for people to be able to move around freely or to see goods not only coming into Gaza, but exports coming out of Gaza."

European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton

It's Ashton's second visit to Gaza in four months

Ashton 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 with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007.

"At the moment that is not something that is on the table," she said.

Israel has agreed to relax its economic and political embargo on goods entering Gaza by land. The move comes after international outrage over an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May, which left nine Turkish activists dead.

Ashton conceded, however, that maritime access to Gaza was unlikely in the near future.

"At the moment, there is no proposal on the table to open a port," she said. "The best option seems to be, and that is the most supported by Palestinians, to open the land crossings, and that's what we're working on."

The EU's top diplomat said she'd discuss the issue further in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Call for more crossings

European governments have urged Israel to increase the number of crossing points and ease restrictions on the movement of people.

Israel says it now blocks only weapons and goods that could be put to military use.

But the limited opening has drawn criticism from the Palestinians and rights groups.

"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," Fayyad told reporters. "The economy of Gaza cannot be sustained only by importation, there needs to be exports."

A Palestinian boy in Gaza, with border fortifications in the background

The EU wants Israel to ease restrictions on people crossing Gaza's borders

Ashton travelled to Israel where she met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. She repeated her call for an end to the blockade, calling it "unacceptable, unsustainable and counter-productive."

For his part, Lieberman said he had told Ashton about Israel's "new, liberal approach to Gaza" and called on the EU to support several large-scale infrastructure projects there "like power stations, desalination plants and water purification."

Lieberman was pushing such projects as a prelude to Israel, which supplies much of Gaza's utilities, cutting ties to the Gaza Strip, according to Israeli media reports.

Gaza's role in two state solution

Lieberman said Israel was looking into the proposal but added that no official decisions had been made.

Ashton expressed her opposition to such a move.

"I have consistently said the solution is a two state solution... and Gaza should be part of that," she said. "I made that position clear to Foreign Minister Lieberman."

Ashton was to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later Sunday. She was not due to meet with officials from Hamas, which is on US and EU lists of terrorist organizations.

Israel began the blockade of Gaza in June 2006 after a soldier was captured by Gaza militants and tightened restrictions a year later, when elections brought Hamas to power.

Richard Connor (AFP/dpa)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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