FM urges EU ministers to visit Gaza

Policy turnaround may signal new bid to sever all ties to Strip.

Lieberman 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Lieberman 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Just days after refusing a personal request from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to let a prominent German politician visit Gaza from Israel, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman asked his Italian counterpart in Rome Thursday to put together a group of seven European foreign ministers to visit the Strip.
Lieberman’s call marks a radical departure from Israel’s policy of refusing to allow visits of foreign politicians to Gaza, something Israel has – with a few noticeable expectations – enforced for several years.
As recently as this week, Lieberman said no to a German request to allow Dirk Niebel, Germany’s visiting minister of economic cooperation and development, to visit the Strip. The decision was not reported extensively in Israel, but was covered widely – and written about critically – in the German press.
According to government sources, Lieberman, during a meeting Thursday with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, suggested he lead a group of European foreign ministers to Gaza. The sources said the suggestion was made after Lieberman consulted with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Justice Ministry.
According to the sources, the European ministers would not meet with Hamas officials. The rationale behind allowing the visit would be so the foreign ministers could see the situation in Gaza for themselves and recognize that there was no siege, hunger or humanitarian crisis in the district.
The ministers would, in addition to visiting Gaza, also go to Sderot, to Ashdod Port, where goods bound for Gaza that arrive by sea are to be checked, and to the land crossings from Israel.
There is an additional reason to allow the visits, it was pointed out: In recent days Lieberman, in private conversations, has called for the complete disengagement of Israel from the Gaza Strip, which would include cutting the supply of water and electricity to the region. He has said that the EU has expressed interest in building power, sewage purification and desalination plants inside Gaza. It is clear, however, that to further such plans, EU ministers would need access.
Lieberman’s invitation to Frattini, who reportedly responded positively to the idea, came just four days after the cabinet decision to significantly ease up on what goods and materials would be allowed into the Gaza Strip.
Government spokesmen stressed at the time that the new policy did not include allowing foreign diplomats entry.
Netanyahu’s government has for more than a year had an undeclared, butde facto, policy preventing foreign politicians from entering Gaza fromIsrael, a policy that has created diplomatic tension when requests –including those from the foreign ministers of France, Turkey andIreland – were turned down.
Israel’s argument for keeping foreign ministers out of Gaza until nowhas largely been to deny Hamas a public relations coup, with governmentspokesmen arguing that the organization would use the visits of foreignpoliticians to strengthen its legitimacy.
In March, Israel made an exception and – following special requests –permitted a visit to Gaza by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EUforeign relations chief Catherine Ashton.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni responded to the new decision by accusingNetanyahu of “legitimizing Hamastan out of weakness, while completelyconceding the Quartet conditions for ending the isolation of Hamas.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.