• Man surveys war damage to Gaza after last year's attack (Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

Ashton throws down the gauntlet over Gaza trip

08.03.10 @ 09:19

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton has said she plans to visit Gaza on her Middle East trip next week, putting Israeli authorities in an awkward position.

"I have asked to go to Gaza, we'll see what happens," she told press at an informal EU ministers' meeting in Cordoba, Spain, over the weekend, according to Reuters. "We are providing a huge amount of aid into Gaza and I'm very interested to make sure that we are seeing the benefits of that aid going in."

Ms Ashton is to travel to Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan on 17 March on her first official journey to the region.

The Israeli authorities had not yet responded as of Monday morning. But there are concerns that her visit could lend legitimacy to Hamas, which controls the territory and which is listed by the EU as a terrorist entity.

Israel has in the recent past blocked foreign dignitaries, including French, Belgian and Turkish ministers as well as MEPs, from crossing into the strip from Israel.

"Egypt may be an alternative," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, one of Israel's stronger EU critics, said in Cordoba, on the possibility of Ms Ashton crossing over from the Egyptian border instead.

Irish foreign minister Michael Martin told the Irish Times that he has briefed Ms Ashton about malnutrition and lack of clean drinking water in Gaza as a result of Israel's blockade following his recent visit.

"I made the point as well that this is wholly counterproductive to the peace process, that Hamas is earning increased revenue from the tunnels [underground passages dug by smugglers], making Hamas stronger and it makes no sense," he explained.

The blockade was imposed following Israel's attack on Gaza in early 2009, which killed 1,400 civilians and destroyed infrastructure.

Israel says it is needed to stop materials, such as steel pipes and fertiliser, used to make weapons, from getting in. But the policy has been roundly criticised by international aid agencies and Ms Ashton herself.

Air Force one

The Cordoba meeting also witnessed the first high-level debate on the EU's future diplomatic corps, as Ms Ashton gears up to make a proposal on its structure later this month.

Ms Ashton complained to press that lack of resources, such as her own plane, is holding her back in her work. Last week she flew on a Spanish government jet to Haiti and then a French one to Spain.

Ministers from the UK, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg and Spain lined up in Cordoba to defend her record so far as she approaches a symbolic 100 days in office.

But France, which has led criticism of her until now, had nothing positive to say, despite foreign minister Bernard Kouchner sharing the plane ride with Ms Ashton to Cordoba. "There is a lot of work to do. We will discuss it now," he said on arrival.

An unnamed Spanish diplomat told AFP that Ms Ashton should get her own aircraft - a comfort denied even to the EU commission and EU council presidents as things stand.

"Mrs Ashton plays in the same league as [US secretary of state] Hillary Clinton, or the Russian foreign minister," the contact explained. "Her own plane would not be a luxury, but a question of survival."