Op-Ed by Catherine Ashton after Gaza visit
(Catherine Ashton is high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and vice president of the European Commission)
It is the process of entering the Gaza Strip that strikes you most. At the Erez checkpoint you go into what looks like a modern airport terminal. Leaving it you move through a winding maze of gates and walls and emerge, like a time-traveler transported backwards, on a dirt track. This is where the industrial center of Gaza used to be, before the shelling just over a year ago. Now, people with donkeys and carts carry stones from the rubble.
Moving from Israel into Gaza, you go from a 21st century country to a landscape that has been disfigured. Rebuilding is impossible while Israel blocks goods from entering. People have little more at their disposal than the ruins that surround them. An illegal system of tunnels provides vital goods for the people — and profits for criminal gangs.
I went to Gaza to see whether European assistance money has an effect on the ground. It does. Amid the bleak conditions, seeds of hope are flowering. I saw a school for girls where pupils receive a solid education, including on human rights. It is education like this that fights child labor.
I visited the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children, a project to improve the lives of deaf people in the Gaza Strip. A workshop there gives more than 300 deaf and marginalized women and men the chance to earn a living by producing the most beautiful handicrafts.
These pockets of normality and hope show how human dignity survives, and, more importantly, an inspiring glimpse of what could be.
What I found in Gaza confirmed my strong view that we must act now — not just to end the violence, but because peace will bring prosperity in Gaza and in the region. It will open up opportunities for growth and regional integration, the best antidote against the radical groups. That is the real prize.
Extremism grows in rubble and refugee camps. These provide fertile territory not just for local warlords but for all those in the region with their own agendas, who profit from instability and assist it with shipments of arms.
The Palestinians have to be able to control their own lives — to build a better future for themselves. When it comes to Gaza, Israel has legitimate security concerns. But for the Israeli people, only a lasting peace can bring sustainable security. That should be the first priority for any government. Making peace strengthens the weak and secures the strong. The moment to make peace is when you are strong.
Throughout the region, from Egypt to Syria, from Lebanon to Jordan, I heard the same message from presidents, prime ministers and a king, and from ordinary people, too — they want their economies to grow, their people to prosper, their children to be educated. To achieve that, we need peace in the Middle East.
We know what needs to be done — proximity talks now, leading quickly to real negotiations. The international community must offer its full backing. We cannot impose peace but we can offer support and incentives to the parties to make the difficult compromises.
The European Union supports U.S. efforts to re-launch negotiations. If we want to succeed, we must re-energize the Quartet as the voice of the international community. Meeting in Moscow on Friday, the Quartet was united and determined to push the process forward and engage with concrete steps like assisting the Palestinian Authority in its state-building efforts.
We know the elements that are needed. The European Union set out its position in a statement of principles last December. A two-state solution with Israel and Palestine side by side in peace and security. A viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, on the basis of the 1967 lines. A way must be found to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both Israel and Palestine. We need a just solution for the refugee issue.
We need to move from conflict management to conflict resolution, involving the whole region. Peace is urgent and it is achievable. I look forward to the day when I can meet the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and when those Palestinians who are held without trial are released. For the sake of the little deaf boy who stood and held my hand and for the girls who want to be able to do something with that good education, we have to move from process to peace.