Gaza blockade to be eased within days declares Tony Blair

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The Independent Online

The world must give "hope, help and prospects" to the people of Gaza, Tony Blair insisted today.

Emerging from talks with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, he repeated his belief that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip will be eased within days.

The key, he said, was an agreement to change from a situation in which Israel operates a limited list of permitted goods allowed through border crossings into Gaza, to a prohibited list of goods - weapons and "combat material" - which are not.

"After my talks (with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), there is now in principle a commitment by Israel to move to such a list," he said.

That would mean Israel maintaining the existing blockade to keep out arms while allowing in building materials and foodstuffs essential to normal daily life, Mr Blair said.

The change would simplify access for non-military goods, "rather than people struggling to get household items and foodstuffs in, rather than them having to fight over almost every bit of construction material".

The former UK prime minister and current Middle East envoy added: "Most of all we must give the people of Gaza some hope, some help and some prospects.

"I believe and hope that we can reach a situation where we get a policy with regard to Gaza which is right regarding security, and regarding the people of Gaza and which gives the people of Gaza eventually the prospects of joining a two-state solution."

Baroness Ashton, European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said EU governments were ready to send monitors to help police border crossings as part of any Israeli decision to ease access.

She gave a cautious welcome to Israel's decision to launch an inquiry into how nine people aboard a flotilla of humanitarian aid ships attempting to breach the blockade were killed by Israeli fire when troops halted the convoy.

A spokesman for Baroness Ashton described the inquiry as "a constructive step" while Mr Blair said: "The issue of the inquiry continues to be an issue of strong political debate ... it is a step forward."

But some EU Governments, notably the Dutch and Swedes, want to see a full international investigation.

That view was included in a statement at the end of today's talks in which EU foreign ministers expressed deep regret for the loss of life during "the Israeli military operation in international waters" and condemned the use of violence.

The statement declared that "an immediate, full and impartial inquiry into these events and the circumstances surrounding them is essential".

It went on: "To command the confidence of the international community this should include credible international participation."

The statement also called for "an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza including goods from the West Bank".

It said the EU stood ready to contribute to the reconstruction of Gaza and its economic revival, adding: "To this end, full and regular access via land crossings, and possibly by sea, on the basis of a list of prohibited goods, should be the prime aim, while at the same time providing strict control over the destination of imported merchandise."

Oxfam warned that the Gazan economy would continue to "unravel" unless the blockade was completely and immediately lifted.

Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, said: "The blockade has unleashed a tragic chain reaction that has affected many of Gaza's one and a half million residents. When a factory is forced to shut down because it can't import or export, it doesn't just affect the employees who lose their jobs - entire families relying on that salary also lose out, becoming dependent on humanitarian aid."

He said that in recent months, Israel had allowed in an increasing number of food items, such as coriander, jam, biscuits and other sweets:

"While this is certainly welcomed, what Gaza needs most are jobs, raw materials for reconstruction and for industry, and the ability to export - not just short-term aid and consumer products like jam that, without a job, they can't afford to buy.

"The civilian population has been kept just above the bar of a humanitarian crisis. It is trapped in a crisis of dignity that the international community must help resolve."

Oxfam said Israel currently allows about 100 types of items into Gaza, compared with more than 4,000 before the blockade.

Meanwhile, a ban on political delegations entering Gaza angered Euro-MPs in Brussels today.

The Israeli embassy in Brussels has advised the European Parliament that Israel will no longer "facilitate the entry of political delegations to Gaza".

The same ban applies to British MPs.

The Israeli letter to all MEPs said the accumulation of political visits "not only undermines Israel's security but also undermines the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to lead the Palestinian people to peace".

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies, who has been to Gaza four times, said: "I'm not surprised that Israel wants to keep politicians away from Gaza: every time one visits they return horrified at the results of policies that leave more than a million people undergoing collective punishment."

Mr Davies, a member of the European Parliament's Palestine Delegation, urged the British Government to open direct talks with Hamas - described in the Israeli letter as a "brutal terrorist organisation which openly calls for Israel's destruction and appears on the EU's list of terrorist organisations".

Mr Davies responded: "I don't agree with the policies of Hamas but the organisation cannot be ignored. The new British Government should follow the recent lead of the Russian president and meet with their representatives face to face.

"You cannot make peace without talking to your enemies."