GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana toured the war-torn Gaza Strip on Friday, the highest ranking European official to visit the territory since it was overrun by Hamas militants and a sign of increasing international engagement in the long-isolated Palestinian enclave.
Solana visited Gaza amid a flurry of talks on an Israel-Hamas truce, reconciliation between Palestinian factions and donations for Gaza’s reconstruction after Israel’s devastating offensive. That offensive, which ended Jan. 18, was aimed at halting near-daily rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli towns, but fire has persisted since the fighting stopped in the absence of a long-term truce deal. Militants launched one rocket that exploded near an Israeli communal farm Friday morning, causing no injuries, the Israeli military said.
Solana was not slated to meet with representatives of Hamas, boycotted internationally as a terror group.
“I came to express solidarity with the people of Gaza and to tell them that we will be helping them in the reconstruction process,” Solana said, standing at the ruins of the American International School of Gaza, destroyed by Israeli bombs during the offensive.
An international conference on Gaza’s reconstruction is set to begin Monday in Cairo. Solana said the EU hoped to “get the money that will be necessary to reconstruct the destruction that has taken place in this period of time.”
The Palestinians hope to raise $2.8 billion at the conference. The U.S. is expected to pledge $900 million. Solana’s visit is part of an increase in the number of high-profile foreign dignitaries coming to Gaza since the offensive. U.S. Senator John Kerry visited last week, the highest-level visit by a U.S. official since the Hamas takeover in June, 2007. Norway’s foreign minister was also in Gaza on Friday. The visits could indicate a greater willingness on the part of the international community to become involved in Gaza, which has been largely isolated since Hamas came to power.
Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, is boycotted by Israel, the U.S. and the EU as a terrorist organization. The international community has demanded the group recognize Israel and renounce violence, conditions it has refused.
But while that remains official policy, there have been calls to engage with the group anyway, including a letter published Thursday in the Times of London and signed by a number of international diplomats, including a former U.N. envoy to Israel and the Palestinian territories and Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister.
“Hamas has sustained its support in Palestinian society despite attempts to destroy it through economic blockades, political boycotts and military incursions. This approach is not working; a new strategy must be found,” reads the letter.
Next week’s reconstruction conference comes alongside talks that could produce important shifts in the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and among the Palestinians themselves.
Israel and Hamas are holding talks through Egyptian mediation meant to produce a long-term truce in Gaza. Hamas wants Israel to open Gaza’s blockaded border crossings, a step Israel says it won’t take until Hamas returns Sgt. Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier it has held since June, 2006.
At the same time, Hamas is holding talks with its rivals from Fatah aimed at ending the violent spat between them, which culminated in Hamas’ rout of Fatah and takeover of Gaza. The goal is to forge a power-sharing agreement that will end the split, which threatens to derail the Palestinians’ goal of achieving an independent state.
The diplomatic activity in the Mideast comes as the U.S. administration begins to make its presence felt in the region. The U.S. Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is in Israel holding meetings with top leaders. He met Friday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, following a meeting Thursday with the incoming Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is currently trying to cobble together a new coalition government. He might be able to form a centrist coalition with his rival, Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party, but it currently seems more likely his government will consist of hard-line parties opposed to territorial withdrawals.
Such a government could freeze peace talks, setting Israel up for a clash with the international community and the U.S., its most important ally.