Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government has an undeclared, but de facto policy, of not letting senior political figures, such as foreign ministers, enter the Gaza Strip from Israel, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
According to government officials, the reasoning is twofold: to deny Hamas legitimacy that would come of such visits, and as a way of trying to apply pressure over kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.
The policy has come to light after Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin told a parliamentary committee last week that Israel had banned a visit he had hoped to make to Gaza.
Responding to criticism that Israel was trying to hide the situation in Gaza, Israeli government officials pointed out that statesmen can always enter Gaza through Egypt.
Moreover, lower-level diplomats and humanitarian aid workers are still being permitted to go into Gaza.
Prior to Netanyahu's coming to power on March 31, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr StÃ¸re, and US Sen. John Kerry were all allowed into the area.
Since then, such high-level visits have, for all intents and purposes, stopped.
Northern Irish Republican leader Gerry Adams went to Gaza in early April, but that was less than two weeks into the Netanyahu government.
Israel has since refused requests by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and now Martin, to visit Gaza.
According to Israel's envoy to Ireland, Zion Evrony, the Irish Embassy in Tel Aviv made initial inquiries regarding the Martin visit, and the proposed itinerary included a visit to Gaza and a meeting with UNRWA's director of operations there.
The Foreign Ministry, Evrony said, "replied that our general policy is not to have visits to Gaza included as part of official visits to Israel. This is out of concern for the safety of our guests visiting an area that is under the rule of a terrorist organization, as well as because of our overall policy of objecting to gestures which give the Hamas regime legitimacy. This legitimacy is created by visiting the area, even if no direct meeting with Hamas officials takes place."
Evrony said that several days ago the Foreign Ministry was informed by Dublin that Martin had decided to postpone his visit.
Evrony referred to a speech that Martin made on Thursday regarding the visit.
"Regrettably, his speech was a one-sided criticism of Israel, placing the burden of the current stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on Israel alone, without pointing out the problems that the Palestinian side poses in the way of resuming negotiations, and without placing any requirements on the Palestinian side.
"His speech is in line with the recent Irish position, which has been one of the more critical of Israel within the EU. We have expressed our concerns about this position through proper diplomatic channels."
At the same time, Evrony said, "the overall relations between Israel and Ireland are strong and positive. Israel attaches high importance to its relations with Ireland and aspires to build with Ireland a constructive dialogue on the basis of shared democratic values and to strengthen bilateral relations especially in the area of trade.
"In this regard, we suggested that Minister Martin, who is always a welcome guest in Israel, devote part of his time to visit Israeli hi-tech companies which can potentially benefit in increasing trade and job opportunities in Ireland."
Martin, according to Irish media reports, told the parliamentary committee on Thursday, "I just wanted to go in and see Gaza," and reportedly said that the "international community may need to reconsider what further pressure" it can exert on Israel to solve and bring about a "two-state settlement."
Martin also said the humanitarian conditions in Gaza were "completely unacceptable."
The Irish foreign minister asked Israel to provide "further clear evidence" that it was serious about peace with the Palestinians, and said he feared Israel was more concerned with "managing what I fear could well escalate into a situation of incipient conflict."
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