Germany blasts minister's blocked entry to Gaza
Germany on Sunday slammed Israel for preventing Development Minister Dirk Niebel from entering the Gaza Strip to meet with Palestinian refugees during his current visit to the region.
"Refusing a German development minister entry to the Gaza Strip is a great foreign policy mistake on the part of the Israeli government," Niebel told the online edition of the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper.
"I am saddened that Israel is making it so difficult for its truest friend to understand its actions."
Niebel wanted to visit the Hamas-run Palestinian territory Sunday to meet representatives of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement in Berlin that he also "regretted" the decision by the Israeli government, and underlined that Germany and the European Union want to see an end to the Gaza blockade.
The Israeli foreign ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.
Israel maintains that the blockade -- imposed when one of its soldiers was seized by Gaza militants in a deadly June 2006 raid and tightened a year later when the Islamist Hamas took over -- is needed to ensure its security.
Niebel said time was running out for Israel to move away from hardline policies in light of international protests over its Gaza policy and faltering efforts to achieve a viable peace deal with the Palestinians.
"For Israel, it is five minutes to 12," he said, adding that the country must take the opportunity "to stop the clock while it can."
"If the Israeli government wants support for its new Gaza strategy then it must ensure more transparency and a new partnership," he said. The blockade "is not a sign of strength but rather evidence of unspoken fear."
The deputy leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats' parliamentary group, Andreas Schockenhoff, said Israel was only "hurting its own interests" with such moved and demanded "unfettered access" to Gaza for international guests and officials.
Niebel met with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad Sunday and attended a ceremony marking the start of construction on a water purification plant in Nablus in the West Bank.
He was to meet Israeli officials in Jerusalem Monday and Tuesday.
Israel approved a plan Thursday to ease its Gaza blockade after weeks of international pressure, but provided few details on what new goods would be allowed in.
The security cabinet's decision was a response to mounting calls to ease the four-year siege of the impoverished Palestinian territory following a deadly May 31 raid on a flotilla of aid ships.
Germany is seen as Israel's closest ally after the United States due to the strong bond they forged in the aftermath of the Holocaust. But Berlin has been outspoken in its criticism of Israel in the wake of the flotilla raid.
© 2010 AFP