GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, (AP) – The Arab world’s top diplomat visited Gaza on Sunday, as part of a growing international push to end a 3-year-old blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.
Arab League Chief Amr Moussa’s visit was the first by a senior Arab official to Gaza since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Moussa was set to meet Gaza’s top Hamas leader, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, in a diplomatic boost for the widely shunned movement.
Moussa’s trip could signal a shift in Arab policy following Israel’s deadly raid of a Turkish-led blockade-busting flotilla two weeks ago.
Many Arab countries have held the Iranian-backed Hamas at arms length, and one of the Arab League’s most important members, Egypt, has been Israel’s partner in keeping Gaza largely sealed.
However, widespread outrage in the Arab and Muslim world over the raid has prompted Arab leaders to join the growing international demands for opening Gaza’s borders. In a first step, Egypt has slightly eased the very limited travel at its Rafah crossing with Gaza.
On Sunday, Moussa entered Gaza through the Rafah terminal.
“The siege must be lifted,” he told reporters. “All the world is now standing with the people of Palestine and the people of Gaza.”
Moussa was scheduled to tour facilities of the main U.N. aid agency and Gaza’s largest hospital, and also meet with relatives of Gazans killed in Israel’s three-week war on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009.
The Arab League chief also planned to discuss stalled attempts to end the political rift between Hamas and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In its violent takeover of Gaza, Hamas defeated forces loyal to Abbas, who now controls only the West Bank.
Since the flotilla raid, in which nine Turkish activists were killed, Abbas has faced a difficult dilemma. Any easing of the blockade would likely benefit Hamas and shore up its rule. However, as Palestinian leader he cannot be seen as pushing to maintain a closure that has directly harmed many of the 1.5 million Gazans.
Moussa coordinated the trip with Abbas, presumably to take some of the sting out of his diplomatic nod to Hamas.
In arriving in Gaza on Sunday, he also emphasized the need for a Palestinian unity deal. Any power-sharing agreement would give Abbas a foothold in Gaza.
“Reconciliation is a key issue,” said Moussa, who was to meet in Gaza with leaders of various political factions, including Hamas and Fatah. “We hope this beginning will end with reconciliation.”
Hamas Cabinet minister Bassem Naim, who greeted Moussa at the terminal, also hinted at Hamas’ political gains from the visit. “The acrimony between Gaza and the Arab nation ended today and forever,” he said.