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by Catherine Ashton
Published by: The Times
Date: June 14, 2010
As far as we know, nine people died in international waters off the coast of Gaza under circumstances that demand an inquiry. This must be an inquiry that Israelis, Palestinians and, above all, the people of Turkey can believe in. It has to be credible, rigorous and impartial; we must find out exactly what happened on the morning of May 31.
Meanwhile, we must remind ourselves why the flotilla was heading for Gaza in the first place.
Three months ago I witnessed the plight of Gaza and the fears of Israel first hand as the first politician allowed to cross the border for more than a year. I found conditions in Gaza as bizarre as they were grim. Living next to one of the most modern countries in the world, people carry goods by horse and cart. And the list of goods they are allowed to import defies logic: fresh fruit but not fruit preserves or dried fruit; flour but not, until recently, pasta.
Israel rightly boasts a fine education system and world-class universities; next door, many children are denied basic schooling. Why? Because the conflict has led to the destruction of many school buildings, and the blockade denies Gaza the bricks and cement it needs to rebuild them or to replace the ruins that litter the countryside. The blockade hurts ordinary people, prevents reconstruction and fuels radicalism.
Israel has the right to ensure the security of its people. It also continues to demand, rightly, the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But the blockade is not completely effective. Many goods are smuggled in through illegal tunnels, including rockets that are used to target Israel. Goods are destined not for those in need, but for those with money and clout. Far from improving civil society, these tunnels degrade it further.
Meanwhile, as I saw for myself, normal, decent people, denied the chance to lead normal lives, become progressively more resentful.
Two questions arise. How can we improve the daily lives of the people of Gaza? And how can we enhance the security of the people of Israel? These questions must be answered together, for any attempt to answer them separately is doomed to fail.
That is why I am seeking to reopen the crossings into Gaza, permanently, for humanitarian aid, commercial goods and civilians to and from Gaza. This is what the United Nations Security Council and the European Union have demanded; it is also what Israel agreed with the Palestinian Authority in 2005. On my trip to Gaza I bought some fabulous handicrafts made by remarkable women who have overcome daunting conditions; I want an end to the ban that prevents their world-class rugs and scarves and ornaments being sold and enjoyed around the world.
Today I shall chair a meeting of the 27 Foreign Ministers of the European Union. We shall examine a practical plan to allow the people of Gaza to bring in what they need. Instead of a list of a very restricted number of products, there should be a short, agreed list of prohibited goods about which Israel has legitimate security concerns. The European Union has trained staff on the ground who could help to implement this at Gaza’s border, letting permitted goods through and keeping banned goods out.
Finding an agreed way to lift the blockade will not be easy. It needs the co-operation of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, success would be a real prize for the cause of peace. It would certainly restore some normality in Gaza. But giving people back their dignity and their hope is also in Israel’s interest. Furthermore, opening up Gaza might help to extend the reach of the Palestinian Authority and help the reconciliation of the Palestinian people.
That, in turn, could pave the way to a serious peace settlement that is the only certain way to prevent further loss of life on either side. Lifting the blockade of Gaza is, then, a small but important step. The proximity talks led by Senator George Mitchell are a bigger step — and in the end Israeli and Palestinian leaders must finally agree on the way forward. We know what the elements for a lasting peace are. The time has come to start bringing them together.
Nobody can believe any longer in the alternative: seeking peace by depriving more than one million men, women and children of the means to care for themselves and each other.
Catherine Ashton is high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy
This House Believes That Gaza’s Blockade Does Not Make Israel Any Safer