GAZA (Reuters) - German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged Israel on Monday to end its blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and called on the Islamist group to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In the first visit by a German minister to the enclave in several years, Westerwelle said it was unacceptable that Israel had blockaded 1.5 million people for three years.
“Germany has a clear vision. We support an end to this blockade. We stress the importance of the resumption of imports and exports,” he told a news conference after visiting a United Nations-run school and a sewage treatment facility.
The European Union spends millions annually to support the Palestinians, and Germany, whose relations with Israel are sensitive because of the Nazi Holocaust, is a major contributor.
But in June this year Berlin slammed Israel for preventing Development Minister Dirk Niebel from visiting the Gaza Strip to see a German-funded humanitarian project. Israel said the visit would help to legitimise Hamas.
“There are 1.5 million people living in Gaza and this blockade is wasting their opportunities,” Westerwelle said.
“This blockade weakens the moderate forces and strengthens extremists, and this cannot be allowed.”
Israel closely controls whatever enters Gaza to deny Hamas access to weapons or materials that may have military uses.
It has significantly eased the Gaza blockade over the past five months for commercial imports of consumer goods, although its list of banned imports still runs to 3,000 items, and there are no regular exports from the territory.
But it says it will not lift the restrictions completely until Hamas frees Shalit, who was captured during a cross-border raid by fighters from Hamas and other militant factions in 2006.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced recently that fresh talks to free Shalit were under way but Hamas leaders denied any breakthrough.
A German envoy has been mediating for two years to try to secure Shalit’s release in return for the liberation of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israel.
Westerwelle declined to discuss the status of the mediation effort, but urged Hamas to “let him go home to his family.”
Westerwelle, who did not meet any Hamas official because his government has no official dealings with Hamas, said his visit meant that the international community and the government of Germany “will not forget Gaza.”
“Germany will continue to provide its support and offer concrete aid,” he said.
Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza by force in 2007 and is shunned by the West as a terrorist organisation.
“Israel’s security cannot be compromised and we reject violence of all forms. Therefore, we are working with the government of President (Mahmoud) Abbas,” Westerwelle said.
Westerwelle held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the weekend in Jerusalem and in the West Bank town of Ramallah, headquarters of the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority.
He was also due to visit the Israeli city of Sderot, which lies a few km (miles) east of Gaza and has been the target of thousands of rocket attacks by Hamas and other militant Islamist Palestinian groups over the past several years.
Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi; editing by Douglas Hamilton and Editing by Kevin Liffey