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.
"I believe that Israel has a need for transparency to render credible the idea that it is changing its political strategy towards Gaza, and my visit would have created that transparency," Niebel said on German public television station ARD.
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.
"If we open the doors to Gaza to ministers from all countries Hamas will use it to legitamise itself," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said on ARD.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton recently visited Gaza.
Israel maintains that the blockade -- imposed after 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, who is vice president of his country's German-Israeli association, 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," said Niebel. 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."
Israel approved a plan Thursday to ease its Gaza blockade after weeks of international pressure, but provided few details.
On Sunday, it said it would allow all strictly "civilian" goods into Gaza while preventing weapons and certain dual-use items from entering the enclave.
The Israeli 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.
The deputy leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats' parliamentary group, Andreas Schockenhoff, said Israel was only "hurting its own interests" with such moves 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.
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