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The EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visits Gaza

19 mars 2010

Israel faced new international pressure over the deadlocked Middle East peace process  with a visit by  Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s new foreign policy chief, to the blockaded Gaza Strip.

Ashton is the most senior european political figure to visit Gaza since Hamas took power. Only two EU foreign ministers have been to Gaza since last year’s war. Foreign officials are regularly refused entry by Israel or stay away because their governments do not recognise Hamas. The EU is the largest contributor of aid to the Palestinians, delivering €1bn  a year, and is often described as a « payer but not a player » in the Middle East. Ashton was touring UN offices, schools and refugee camps but had no plans to meet representatives of Hamas.

Minutes after she arrived, a rocket fired from Gaza killed a Thai farm worker in the southern Israeli village of Netiv Ha’asara. Israel Radio reported that responsibility for the attack had been claimed by the radical Palestinan group Ansar al-Sunna. Hamas has tried to enforce a de facto ceasefire since last year’s war.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, asked Ashton for EU intervention to put pressure on Israel to freeze building in the settlements and Jerusalem. Earlier she held talks in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and today will be in Moscow to join a meeting of the Middle East quartet: Hillary Clinton for the US; the UN’s Ban Ki-Moon, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister; and Tony Blair, the quartet’s special representative.

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