Belfast Telegraph

Only small steps can pave the path to peace in Gaza

Giving Gazans back their dignity can be a first move towards reconciliation, says Catherine Ashton

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.

We cannot run away from that. We must find out exactly what did happen on the morning of May 31.

Meanwhile, we must also 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 between them 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 build new schools. The blockade hurts ordinary people, prevents reconstruction and fuels radicalism.

Two questions arise. How can we help to improve the daily lives of the people of Gaza? And how can we help to enhance the security of the people of Israel? Those two questions must be answered together, for any attempt to answer them separately is doomed to fail.

That is why I am seeking to re-open the crossings into Gaza, permanently, for humanitarian aid, commercial goods and civilians to and from Gaza. This is what the UN Security Council and the European Union have demanded; it is also what Israel agreed with the Palestinian Authority in 2005. This week the 27 foreign ministers of the EU are examining 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 that are allowed in, there should be an agreed list of prohibited goods where Israel has legitimate security concerns.

The EU has staff who can implement this at Gaza's border, letting permitted goods through and keeping banned goods out. Indeed, this is what they used to do, but have not been allowed to since Hamas took over in 2007.

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 dignity and hope is also in Israel's interest - just as it would be in the interests of the Palestinians to meet Israel's justified demand for the release of their soldier Gilad Shalit.

Furthermore, opening up Gaza might help extend the reach of the Palestinian Authority and help the reconciliation of the Palestinian people.

That could pave the way to a peace settlement - the only way to prevent further loss of life .

The proximity talks led by US 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.

No one can believe any longer in 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 a representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and European Commission vice-president

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