Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission
European Parliament, Strasbourg, 16 June 2010
This is an issue of great importance for the European Union, as is evident from the various draft Resolutions that have been tabled.
Let me stress at the outset: what happened on the seas outside Gaza was unacceptable. We said so immediately, loud and clear.
Nine people died in international waters under circumstances that demand an inquiry. This must be an inquiry that Israelis, Palestinians and above all the people of Turkey can believe in. Israel has announced the creation of an independent Commission with the participation of 2 senior international members as observers. This is a step forward. But the EU will follow closely the conduct and findings of the Commission before drawing further conclusions.
The military attack on the flotilla has captured the world’s attention. The loss of life has been tragic. But we need to remind ourselves why the flotilla was heading for Gaza in the first place. That underlying cause is the terrible plight of Gaza, which is now back on peoples’ radar.
I have seen it myself, three months ago, as the first politician allowed to enter into Gaza from Israel for more than a year. What I saw was shocking.
Living next to one of the most modern countries in the world, people carry goods by horse and cart. Israel rightly boasts an excellent education system and world-class universities. Next door, many children are denied basic schooling. The blockade denies Gaza the bricks and cement which the UN needs to build new schools, hospitals, housing and sanitation. It is bizarre situation where flour, beans and margarine are allowed in but vinegar, chocolate and fresh meat are not.
The blockade hurts ordinary people, prevents reconstruction and fuels radicalism. The blockade is also not completely effective, but in the wrong way. Many goods are smuggled in through illegal tunnels. They do not go to those in need but to those with money and clout.
The blockade empowers Hamas. It gives outsiders with a very different agenda from ours a chance to escalate tensions. On top of all this: the suffering of Gaza does not make Israel more secure. This cannot go on. Things must change.
Out of this, two simple questions arise. How can we help to improve the daily lives of the people of Gaza? And how can help to enhance the security of the people of Israel? We must answer these questions together. If we try to do it separately, we will fail.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed that we must seize the initiative, take concrete steps to tackle the Gaza crisis and use it as a catalyst for peace in this troubled region.
It will not be easy to find an agreed way to lift the blockade. It needs the cooperation of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The EU and many others have long called for an end to the blockade. But the political parameters have changed. The circumstances now are different.
First, we need to open the crossings so that humanitarian aid, commercial goods and civilians can enter and exit Gaza normally. This is in line with our well established position and Security Council resolutions. But most importantly, it was laid down in the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access agreed between Israel the Palestinian Authority in 2005. This agreement is the key framework.
Second, instead of a list of a very restricted number of products that are allowed in, there should be a short, agreed list of prohibited goods where Israel has legitimate security concerns.
According to my own discussions, it seems we are moving in this direction on both crossings and goods.
Third, the EU has people and a mission in Rafah that could be reactivated. And we are ready to support in the opening of other land crossings for goods and people, recalibrating our Mission or developing a new one. There may also be a possibility of a more complex maritime option for a CSDP mission.
We are working hard on all action tracks. I have created a task force to bring together all the relevant departments and expertise (I will chair its first meeting on Friday). We will send an exploratory mission shortly to see how we can best contribute to a solution that works for the people of Gaza while addressing the concerns of Israel.
The wider issue here is that a lifting of the blockade should help to bring peace. Gaza is an integral part of the future Palestinian state. So we need to work on re-unifying the West Bank with Gaza in the same way that we must help the reconciliation of the Palestinian people. These are all essential ingredients for the two-state solution that remains our goal.
It is positive that we have succeeded in preserving the Israel-Palestinian proximity talks and our Arab partners deserve credit for this. The Quartet should play an important role in engaging the parties and setting the direction for our collective efforts: to end Gaza’s dangerous isolation and to work for peace in the region.
I know many in this House want the same thing.