Ireland's top diplomat in Gaza to see blockade impact

Ireland's top diplomat in Gaza to see blockade impact

GAZA CITY - Agence France-Presse
Irelands top diplomat in Gaza to see blockade impact

Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore (L) shakes hands with UNRWA commissioner-general Filippo Grandi during his visit to the UNRWA aid distribution centre in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 27,2012. AFP photo

Visiting Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore on Friday kicked off a three-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories with a brief visit to the Gaza Strip.

It was Gilmore's first visit to the Hamas-ruled coastal territory which has been languishing under an Israeli blockade for more than five years.

"Ireland is completely opposed to the blockade," Gilmore told AFP in Gaza City.

"It has a huge impact on people who are living in Gaza and it is clearly having a devastating impact on the local economy," said the minister.

"The blockade should be ended soon in order to allow the local economy to grow and ensure that people who live in Gaza can exercise their human rights: freedom of movement and travel." Gilmore's spokesman Philip Grant earlier said the minister wanted to see first hand the impact of the embargo.

"Within the European Union, Ireland has been one of the most forceful countries calling for a lifting of the Gaza blockade. He is here to see what the economic and social impact has been on the people of Gaza," he said.

The minister's visit comes nearly three months after Israeli forces blocked a vessel carrying 15 Irish activists, among them a member of the European parliament, from reaching Gaza in defiance of Israel's controversial naval blockade.

The move sparked tensions with Dublin, which has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the Israeli embargo that was first imposed in 2006, then tightened a year later when Hamas seized control of the territory.

"Flotilla is a voluntary activity by individuals and organisations -- they do that obviously in response to the blockade," Gilmore said.

"The role of the Irish government is playing through the European Union and the United Nations and international organisations, and we made very clear the position of the Irish government -- that it opposes the blockade, and that we believe it is wrong." Irish activists were also part of an earlier 10-ship flotilla which tried to reach Gaza in July but their vessel was damaged, with the organisers accusing Israel of sabotage.

At the time, Dublin said it would take a "very serious view" if the allegations were proven.

During his brief visit to the coastal territory, Gilmore met representatives of Palestinian civil society and also talked with officials from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, but did not meet any Hamas representatives in line with EU policy, which blacklists the group as a terror organisation.

He left around midday (1000 GMT) and headed to Jerusalem where he was to be briefed by OCHA, the UN agency for humanitarian affairs, before heading out on a tour of the Old City and a visit to the flashpoint Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan in the city's annexed eastern sector.

Israel has vigorously defended its right to maintain a blockade on the Gaza Strip, saying it is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the Hamas-run territory.

Last September, a UN report into a deadly Israeli commando raid on a Turkish-led flotilla in May 2010, which left nine activists dead, found the Jewish state had acted with "excessive force" but said its naval blockade on Gaza was legal.

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