Israel is ready to soften its four—year blockade on the Gaza Strip by opening up to two land crossings into Hamas—controlled Palestinian territory, European Union officials said on Monday.
Israel has been under increasing international pressure to reverse its embargo policy since late May, when its navy raided a flotilla bringing in aid to Gaza, killing nine activists.
“We have first signals from Israel that things are moving into a better direction, that aid supplies will be allowed again. This is much needed,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Luxembourg, where he and his EU counterparts were set to meet with the Middle East envoy Tony Blair.
“My hope is that changing the way the blockade is operated will give a boost to the overall process,” former British prime minister Blair told the BBC ahead of the meeting.
“The key distinction "
While he understood that Israel would continue to draw a “red line” on its blockade of weapons supplies to Gaza, the delivery of items for “daily life” should become a “matter of course.” “The key distinction is ... between the measures necessary to stop arms coming into Gaza and allowing goods for ordinary daily life, and to rebuild the infrastructure of Gaza and to allow legitimate business to operate,” he said.
An EU diplomat said that “within weeks” Israeli authorities could be willing to open the Karni and the Keren Shalom land crossings and soften the blockade by allowing all goods to flow into Gaza, except those detailed in a “negative list.” Israel currently blockades Gaza, allowing in only goods specifically mentioned in a “positive list.” The Israeli move is expected to be supported by the European Union in either logistical or financial terms. However, a proposal supported by France to let the EU monitor shipping directed to Gaza is not likely to pass, diplomats said.
No need for flotillas, says Blair
“There is no need for flotillas,” said Mr. Blair, adding that goods could reach Gaza through “normal crossings.” In the past, an EU team monitored the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but the mission was folded after Hamas took over the strip in 2007. Diplomats say it is not likely to be revived.
The EU does not have official contacts with Hamas, since it considers it to be a terrorist organisation. This makes sending any border monitoring mission to Gaza politically difficult.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini suggested a role could be played by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency handling humanitarian aid in the territory.
“Hamas cannot be the interlocutor on the other side for reasons which are well known,” Mr. Frattini said.
Speaking before the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc was “looking at being able to put a team in there to try and support ... what I hope that the Israelis are doing to open the crossing.” Ministers were also expected to debate who should represent the international community in the enquiry Israel announced on Sunday on the flotilla incident, which is expected to feature two international experts.
“My proposal is that the Quartet is the best international component,” Mr. Frattini said, referring to the panel formed by the UN, the EU, the United States and Russia to mediate the Middle East peace process, and which has Mr. Blair as its envoy.