Lavrov: End Gaza blockade, settlement activity

Russian FM calls siege "unacceptable," says Israel should let "Palestinian people... lead normal lives."

Olmert Lavrov 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [file])
Olmert Lavrov 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [file])
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday called for an end to the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and demanded that Israel halt its settlement activity. Lavrov termed the blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June, "unacceptable." "The siege should stop so the Palestinian people in the strip could lead normal lives," he said at a news conference in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the West Bank. The takeover by Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, has dramatically deepened the hardship in Gaza, which is isolated internationally and under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade. A coalition of eight British-based human rights organizations recently reported that about 80 percent of Gaza's residents are now dependent on food aid, and that unemployment is close to 40%. Lavrov expressed his support for Palestinian reconciliation talks underway in Yemen, and said it was very important for Israel and the Palestinians to carry out their commitments under the road map peace plan, which is the basis for negotiations renewed at an international conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November. The first phase of the road map obliges the Palestinians to crack down on terror groups and obliges Israel to halt all settlement activity. Israel says the Palestinian efforts to rein in gunmen don't go far enough, while the Palestinians are angered over continued and planned Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - lands they claim as part of a future state. Lavrov told reporters that Russia was "very much worried" about Israeli construction on land the Palestinians claim for a future state. "We call for an immediate halt to settlement activity," he said. Lavrov arrived in the region late Wednesday for a three-day trip to Syria, Israel and the West Bank. In Syria, his meetings included a session with Hamas's Damascus-based supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, who fiercely opposes peace efforts with Israel. In Israel, Lavrov met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders. Russia is a member of the international Quartet of nations trying to broker a Middle East peace. At the news conference Friday, Abbas backed Moscow's efforts to host a follow-up conference to the Annapolis gathering, where Abbas and Olmert set the ambitious goal of reaching a deal by the end of this year. Israel has been cool to the idea of a Moscow conference, which Russia proposed immediately after Annapolis and would likely put a greater emphasis on bringing Israel and Syria back to the negotiating table after eight silent years. But with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks troubled by the contentious Israeli construction and ongoing violence, Abbas on Friday urged a follow-up conference in Moscow "at the soonest possible opportunity."