EU Foreign Policy Chief, Catherine Ashton, is currently visiting Gaza. She has met with local leaders and witnessed the effects of the siege on Gaza. The foreign policy chief for the European Union, Catherine Ashton, is currently visiting Gaza and believes the international community needs to escalate its efforts to get Israel to end the siege on Gaza.

Ashton is the highest ranking diplomat to visit the enclosed Gaza strip after Israel’s announcement that it would ease its three year blockade, alleging that most consumer goods would be allowed into the region.

She will be meeting with Prime Minister Benjanim Netanyahu after he returns from his official visit to Egypt. Netanyahu met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the resumption of direct talks with the Palestinians. Mubarak is also meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who said that he will not begin negotiations without a commitment from Israel to recognize the 1967 Green Line borders for a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu has opposed any such preconditions prior to negotiations.

While Israel has allowed more goods to trickle into the Gaza strip, it still has a ban on badly needed construction materials, most of which are needed to repair ailing buildings and homes that sustained damage in 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. Israel and Gaza also prevent most Gazans from traveling outside the 360 square kilometer region.

Ashton stressed the importance of bolstering Gaza’s economy as it cannot survive without exporting some of its goods ‘We want to see the opportunity for people to be able to move around freely, to see goods not only coming into Gaza but exports coming out of Gaza.’ Prior to the blockade three years ago, a fair amount of exports were going into Israel, but now Gaza’s economy has been stifled and there is close to 50% unemployment.

While 90% of the water is not drinkable, over half of the 1.5 million residents depend on the UNRWA and other NGOs for basic foods, and medical care is barely available, Israel Information Minister Yuli Edelstein said, ‘I hope that following the visit of the European foreign minister in Israel, she will understand that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We have opened all we can and we have gone a long way toward the civilian population.’

Ashton met with local business leaders and was informed that Gaza’s economy cannot rebound unless all raw materials are allowed into Gaza so that the exportation of products can be restarted.

Less than a third of Gaza’s 3,900 factories and workshops are currently operating; some do not operate at full capacity and have to get their supplies at higher prices from the smuggling tunnels that connect Gaza to Egypt.

Ashton does not believe that aid flotillas are an effective method of breaking the blockade as supplies can be delivered by land. She feels that diplomatic pressure and humanitarian sponsorship are the solution: ‘what needs to happen now is continued international pressure to move forward.’