FM calls on EU to form force to prevent Gaza smuggling

Lieberman tells Ashton once smuggling stops, Israel will lift Gaza closure; Netanyahu to meet Mubarak in Egypt.

Gaza smuggling tunnel 311 (photo credit: Ashley Bates)
Gaza smuggling tunnel 311
(photo credit: Ashley Bates)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called on the EU Wednesday to put together a “strong, real and effective” force to prevent arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
Lieberman’s call came during a meeting in Jerusalem with visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been a leading voice calling for Israel to ease up on the blockade of Gaza and enable the free movement of goods and people.
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Lieberman, according to a statement issued by his office, told Ashton that the reason the Olmert government clamped a closure on Gaza in 2007 was to stop the unrelenting smuggling of arms into the region through tunnels under the Philadelphi corridor separating Gaza and Egypt.
“If you want to bring about a lifting of the closure around Gaza you should take responsibility and establish a strong, real and effective force to prevent smuggling there,” he said. “I can promise you that the minute the smuggling of arms into Gaza stops, the closure will be lifted.”
The Foreign Minister said that close cooperation between the EU and Israel could lead to a genuine change in the situation, but that first the EU needed to understand that “the problem is the terrorist actions from Gaza, not the closure meant to prevent them.”
Prior to Ashton’s arrival to Israel on Wednesday, her office put out a statement saying the purpose of her visit was to meet with leaders from both sides to “confirm the commitment of the European Union to the peace process, and to reiterate the need for the opening of crossings into Gaza in order to allow for its reconstruction and economic recovery.”
In addition to meeting Lieberman, Ashton also met Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
She did not meet Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu because of scheduling problems. Ashton is scheduled to meet Palestinian leaders in Ramallah on Thursday.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is scheduled to go to Sharm e-Sheikh Thursday for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu was in regular contact with the Egyptian leader, and that he viewed the relationship with Egypt as a cornerstone of peace and stability in the region. The sources said the two would discuss how to get the diplomatic process back on track, as well as bilateral issues and “larger issues of regional stability.”
Netanyahu will be accompanied by Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer who is known to have a good relationship with Mubarak; Uzi Arad, who held a meeting last week in Egypt with Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman; and military attaché Maj.-Gen.
Yohanan Locker. Netanyahu is not bringing press with him.
In a related development, Netanyahu threw his support Wednesday behind a proposal put forward by Ben-Eliezer to increase the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel.
According to the plan, which is scheduled to be discussed in Sunday’s cabinet meeting, 4,000 West Bank Palestinians would be given permits to work in construction and 1,250 in agriculture.
“In addition to the help it will give to the construction and agriculture industries, the process also represents an important step forward in the relationship between us and the Palestinians,” Ben-Eliezer said.
A source close to the prime minister said this plan was consistent with Netanyahu’s approach that in conjunction with trying to reach a political agreement, there needed to be a “bottom up” approach that would focus on improving the West Bank economy to create an atmosphere more conducive to peace.
Meanwhile, Kadima MKs Nachman Shai, Yulia Shamolov Berkovich, and Nino Abesadze will meet on Sunday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Shai said the meeting was not intended to put pressure on Netanyahu.
“We pressure Netanyahu all the time, and we don’t need a meeting with Abbas to do that,” Shai said.
Kadima leader Tzipi Livni will not participate in the meeting, because she did not want to be seen as undermining Netanyahu. For that reason, she has made a point of not meeting with Abbas since Netanyahu took office.
Likud Ministers criticized Shai for organizing the meeting.
“This meeting will be interpreted by the Palestinians as encouragement to continue to refuse to negotiate and to stiffen their demands,” said Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein.

Gil Hoffman and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report