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Israel invites European FMs to visit Gaza

Calls mount for Israel to ease siege on Gaza

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has invited his Italian counterpart to lead a European ministerial delegation to Gaza, ending a diplomatic blockade on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave.

Lieberman raised the idea at a meeting in Rome on Thursday with Franco Frattini, suggesting his Italian counterpart tour the impoverished coastal strip with other European foreign ministers, the Italian foreign ministry said.

"Frattini has taken note of the Israeli proposal and will give a response after discussing it with his European and international partners," it said in a statement.

The proposal came just four days after Israel said it was easing draconian barriers on imports to Gaza and would allow all strictly "civilian" goods into the strip while preventing weapons and certain dual-use items from entering.

Export restrictions remain in force

Israel imposed the sanctions after soldier Gilad Shalit was snatched by members of the Islamist movement Hamas and other militant groups on June 25, 2006.

The closure was further tightened the following year when Hamas seized control of the territory.

International pressure on Israel to lift sanctions soared after its forces killed nine Turkish activists during a May 31 raid on a flotilla of aid ships attempting to run the blockade.

Israeli media said on Friday that Lieberman had suggested Frattini lead a delegation of colleagues including the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and non EU-member Norway to Gaza so that they could see for themselves that the residents were not starving.

Amid no immediate reaction from Hamas, the Jerusalem Post cited Israeli government sources as saying the visitors would be asked not to meet with Gaza's Islamist rulers.

Since imposing the land, sea and air blockade, Israel has in most cases refused to let senior foreign officials cross its border with Gaza.

On Sunday, it refused passage for German Development Minister Dirk Niebel, who wanted to meet representatives of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which cares for Palestine refugees.

The Israeli foreign ministry said at the time that opening the doors to visiting ministers would legitimise Hamas rule in the strip.

Israel has, however, allowed access to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness welcomed Lieberman's decision, saying that a high-level visit would not only highlight the needs of poverty-stricken Gazans but could also help win the release of Shalit, who is still a captive.

"I would hope that if politicians take up the suggestion and visit Gaza they would be able to raise with the local authorities the case of Gilad Shalit," he said on Friday.

"That's one of the issues that they could pursue in Gaza and at the same time they would be able to see for themselves the logic of allowing exports from Gaza to give people a sense of prosperity."

An Israeli opposition MP criticised the move as capitulation to Hamas.

"What's happening now is that the government is paying high prices and getting nothing in return, "Yohanan Plesner of the centrist Kadima party told public radio.

"Hamas is in fact getting its demands, opening of crossings, lifting the diplomatic blockade," he

That's one of the issues that they could pursue in Gaza and at the same time they would be able to see for themselves the logic of allowing exports from Gaza to give people a sense of prosperity

UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness