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Sami Abdel-Shafi: A game-changing visit in disguise

Gaza can still make history even amid an Israeli blockade and an international boycott which has pushed it into prolonged stagnation. Officially, Baroness Ashton travelled here not for any political purpose, but to survey the humanitarian situation and to review how EU aid is being spent.

But timed on the eve of a meeting of the international quartet, her visit represents something far greater: it sets a precedent which the rest of the world must surely follow.

The US's great disappointment at Israel's intransigence over West Bank settlements should prompt Washington to challenge Israel's isolation of Gaza and a first step would be for the US envoy George Mitchell to travel here. After all, Gaza must be engaged in the peace process. And the US should pre-empt the next Israeli manoeuvre – when Mr Mitchell finally manages, at some point, to advance peace talks – of claiming that the Palestinian leadership does not represent the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians can leverage Lady Ashton's significant gesture to influence a change of policy towards Gaza by Europe and the US. But they must first heal their own divisions and clear the way for EU money to be spent on setting up unified government structures across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem rather than just on urgent humanitarian needs in Gaza.

But Gaza must also receive more official visits if it is not to remain mired in a state which puts it at risk of rising extremism. Lady Ashton's visit should inspire the international community to become more aggressive with Israel, both in seeking the truth about what is really going on here, and a just eventual settlement to this conflict.

The writer is a business consultant in Gaza