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EU foreign policy chief tours Gaza

EU foreign policy chief tours Gaza

The EU foreign policy chief launched a tour of Gaza Strip on Sunday by urging Israel to throw open the territory's long-blockaded borders.
Catherine Ashton is the most senior diplomat to visit Gaza since Israel announced earlier this month that it would ease its three-year-old blockade to allow most consumer goods into the coastal strip of 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel continues to ban virtually all exports, restricts the import of badly needed construction supplies and _ along with Egypt _ prevents most Gazans from traveling.
"The position of the EU is very clear. We want to see the opportunity for people to be able to move around freely, to see goods not only coming in to Gaza but exports coming out of Gaza," she said at her first stop, the Megapharm pharmaceuticals company.
Israel, citing security concerns, has signaled that it is not willing to completely open border crossings.
In meetings with entrepreneurs, Ashton plans to hear from Gazans whether their lives improved after Israel eased its blockade. She said she opened her visit by touring local businesses "to demonstrate how important the EU believes the economy of Gaza is to its future."
Ashton's visit coincided with the arrival of humanitarian aid originally carried by a Libyan commissioned ship that was prevented by the Israeli navy from reaching Gaza. At least 40 trucks loaded with food and medicine entered the territory through Egypt's border crossing Sunday morning.
With the blockade eased, the EU plans to offer grants to some 900 Gaza businesses to help them start up again. In the first installment, 203 businesses are to receive grants totaling 4.8 million euros, EU officials said.
Ashton was to visit two of the aid recipients on Sunday, Megapharm and a concrete-mixing factory.
Megapharm, which employs 35 people, was damaged during Israel's 2009 offensive in Gaza, and was shut down for 2 1/2 years because of the blockade.
Company official Husam Zendah said since the blockade was eased, production has increased to about 50 percent of capacity. Its big problem, Zendah said, is that it can only produce for the local market because exports remain banned. Before the blockade, most of its production was exported, largely to the West Bank, he said.
Israel imposed the blockade, along with Egypt, after the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. For three years, only humanitarian supplies, such as basic food and medicine, were allowed into Gaza, while hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt became the main conduit for imports.
An international outcry over Israel's deadly raid of a blockade-busting flotilla in May prompted Israel to partially ease the border closure. In recent weeks, a wider variety of goods have reached Gaza, including previously banned items such as mattresses, washing machines and cleaning products.
However, critics say the changes are not far-reaching enough and will not help Gaza's battered economy to recover. The entry of construction materials needed to repair the heavy damage from Israel's bruising 2009 war in Gaza as well as raw materials for industry remain restricted because Israel says militants can use them to fight Israel. Exports continue to be banned.
Only about 30 percent of Gaza's 3,900 factories and workshops are currently operating, some at limited capacity and with supplies from the tunnels, said Amr Hamad, head of the Palestinian Federation of Industries in Gaza.
Hamad said he expects only a few hundred factories and workshops to resume operations as a result of the easing of the blockade. He said it remains unclear which raw materials will be allowed in and the export ban means goods can only be sold on the local market.


Updated : 2021-04-13 13:23 GMT+08:00