EU foreign policy chief tours Gaza, checks embargo

Gaza City–The international community must pressure Israel to go beyond easing its Gaza blockade and throw open the territory’s long-blockaded borders, the EU foreign policy chief said after a tour of the Hamas-run coastal strip.

Catherine Ashton is the most senior diplomat to visit Gaza since Israel announced earlier this month that it would relax its 3-year blockade to allow most consumer goods into the coastal strip of 1.5 million Palestinians.

Israel continues to ban virtually all exports and restricts the import of badly needed construction supplies and raw materials for industry. And along with Egypt, it prevents most Gazans from traveling.

“The position of the EU is very clear. We want to see the opportunity for people to be able to move around freely, to see goods not only coming in to Gaza but exports coming out of Gaza,” Ashton said at her first stop, the Megapharm pharmaceuticals company.

Later, she told a news conference that “what needs to happen now is continued international pressure to move forward.”

Israel, citing security concerns, has signaled that it is not willing to completely open border crossings.

“I hope that following the visit of the European foreign minister in Israel, she will understand that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” said Israeli Information Minister Yuli Edelstein. “We have opened all we can and we have gone a long way toward the civilian population.”

In meetings with entrepreneurs, Ashton was told Gaza’s battered economy can only recover if all raw materials are allowed into Gaza and finished products can be exported.

Only about 30 percent of Gaza’s 3,900 factories and workshops are currently operating, some at limited capacity and with supplies from smuggling tunnels dug under the border with Egypt when the blockade was in full force, said Amr Hamad, deputy head of the Palestinian Federation of Industries.

Hamad said he expects only a few hundred factories and workshops to resume operations as a result of the easing of the blockade.

The EU plans to offer 22 million euros in grants to some 900 Gaza businesses to help them start up again.

Ashton visited two of the aid recipients on Sunday, Megapharm and a concrete-mixing factory.

Megapharm was shut down for two and a half years because of the blockade. Since the embargo was eased, production has reached about 50 percent of capacity, but potential for further growth is limited because exports remain banned, company official Husam Zendah said.

The owner of the concrete mixing factory, Teissir Abu Eida, said his factory is working at 5 percent capacity because the raw materials he needs are on the restricted list. Abu Eida produces just enough concrete to supply two international aid projects, including the repair of a Gaza hospital.

Unless the limitations on the entry of raw materials are lifted, “the easing of the blockade is meaningless,” he said.

His factory was destroyed during Israel’s military offensive against Gaza 19 months ago, and Ashton inspected the wrecks of cement trucks and other vehicles parked in his compound.

Israel imposed the blockade, along with Egypt, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

An international outcry over Israel’s deadly raid of a flotilla of aid ships trying to run Israel’s Gaza blockade in May prompted Israel to ease the border closure to allow in all consumer goods.

Ashton said she opposes the idea of sending more flotillas and said the focus must be on getting land crossings reopened.

Her visit coincided with the arrival of humanitarian aid originally carried by a Libyan commissioned ship that was prevented by the Israeli navy from reaching Gaza. Forty trucks loaded with food and medicine were to entered the territory through Israeli and Egyptian crossings Sunday.

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