Saturday, May 3, 2008

Israel Urged to End Blockade of Gaza as Talks Begin in London

Israel Urged to End Blockade of Gaza as Talks Begin in London

By Ian Black

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Agencies demand "highest diplomatic pressure."
"Settlement expansion must stop." - Palestinian PM

Israel will be urged today to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip to avert a humanitarian disaster as the Middle East "quartet" meets to consider the state of the faltering peace process.

Oxfam and five other UK aid agencies are calling for the quartet to end its "complacency" by putting the "highest diplomatic pressure" on Israel over its strategy of isolating the Islamist movement Hamas at meetings in London on the Annapolis negotiations and Palestinian economic development in the West Bank.

"The collective complacency of the quartet is putting the future of the people of Gaza on the line," said Oxfam GB director Barbara Stocking. "We need the fuel, humanitarian supplies and essential equipment withheld by Israel for more than nine months to ease this human suffering and avert a disaster.

"It is well within the power of the EU and the US to make this happen ... They should insist on an immediate end to Gaza's suffering."

But there is no sign that the quartet - the US, Russia, the EU and the UN - will drop the principle of boycotting Hamas while Israeli officials and some western diplomats blame the group for attacking the Gaza crossing points and not distributing available fuel. The EU recently noted Hamas's "share" in the crisis.

Salam Fayyad, the western-backed Palestinian prime minister, warned separately yesterday that Israel must freeze all settlement activity and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank if peace talks are to have any chance of succeeding. Fayyad also called on Israel to alleviate the "catastrophic" crisis in Gaza.

"Unfortunately, in the five months since Annapolis, Israel has done little, most significantly with its continued noncompliance with the obligation to freeze all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories," Fayyad said. "The language is very clear: it says 'not one more brick,' and we have witnessed expanded settlement activity."

If that did not change quickly the peace process would be "devoid of any meaningful content," Fayyad added.

Israel and the Palestinians pledged at the US-hosted summit last November to reach agreement by the end of 2008. But there is profound and growing scepticism on all sides.

Fayyad's uncharacteristically sharp remarks will add to pressure on Israel. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, and from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are expected to urge Israel to ease the Gaza crisis by opening border crossings to food and fuel deliveries.

Egypt is leading intensifying diplomatic activity to bring about a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas as well as smaller factions such as Islamic Jihad which have been firing rockets across the border. Israel expects any package to include the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was captured by Palestinian fighters nearly two years ago.

Some Israeli officials argue that the siege is working, that Hamas is under pressure and that Israel should not "reward" it. "The situation is catastrophic and everything that can be done should be done," said Fayyad. "The alternative to a ceasefire is 1.5million Palestinians continuing to live in a state of utter despair. The dynamic has to change otherwise we are in the realm of instability that will produce nothing but disaster."

Tony Blair, the quartet's envoy, has tried to reduce the number of Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank but the latest UN figures show Israel has removed just five of nearly 600 obstacles.

Fayyad, a former World Bank economist, is favoured by the west and Israel for his commitment to improve governance and boost the economy with the help of $7.7bn pledged at a Paris conference Blair convened last December. But he said Israeli military incursions were undermining the ability of Palestinian security forces, trained in Jordan, to control the West Bank - as Israel ostensibly wants.

"It's a dreadful situation but there are things we can do to improve the context in which we are operating. The economic leg is hugely important. But this is a political conflict that requires a political solution."

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