US seeks new ways to deal with Gaza

June 7, 2010 12:00 am

, SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Jun 7 – The United States is seeking new ways to deal with blockaded Gaza, Vice President Joe Biden said in Egypt on Monday as regional tensions mounted over Israel\’s deadly raid on an aid convoy.

"We are consulting closely with Egypt, as well as our other partners, on new ways to address the humanitarian, economic, security and political aspects of the situation in Gaza," he after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The two leaders held 90 minutes of talks in Egypt\’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Biden\’s visit came after a naval operation by US ally Israel on May 31 that killed nine people on an aid ship headed for Gaza and threatened to stall US-brokered proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Turkish-owned boat was part of a six-ship flotilla trying to break the four-year-old blockade Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip. Another aid boat, the Irish-owned Rachel Corrie, was intercepted on Saturday.

On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said Israel should be "ashamed of itself" for the deadly raid but insisted the proximity talks would not be affected.

He said indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians were "ongoing" and warned suspending them would hamper Palestinian hopes of statehood.

"If anyone speaks of ending these contacts, he is preventing the Palestinians from achieving their aspirations through political action," Abul Gheit said.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas headed to Turkey on Sunday on his way to Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama on the indirect peace negotiations – talks which he says are already running into trouble.

"We are going through difficult talks with the Israelis. There are lots of obstacles," Abbas told a group of young Palestinians on Friday.

Despite a global outcry over the Israeli commando assault, the White House has refused to explicitly single out Israel for blame.

Biden said Wednesday Israel has the right to protect itself by boarding Gaza-bound ships, but added Washington would continue to press Israel to improve living conditions for the Palestinians.

"I think Israel has an absolute right to deal with its security interest," Biden said on PBS television.

"The one thing we have to do is not forget the plight of these Palestinians there… They\’re in bad shape."

Mubarak ordered on Tuesday the indefinite opening of Egypt\’s Rafah border crossing — the only gateway to Gaza that bypasses Israel.

An Egyptian security official vowed Monday to keep the Rafah border crossing open.

"We will have to. We will not abandon 1.5 million people," the official told a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity.

"We opened the border. We won\’t close it unless there is a violation. It depends on the behaviour of the other side," he said.

"We have no problem with people going in or out. Things like cement and steel will go through Kerem Shalom.

"Israel does not object to this. They object to the goods going to Hamas," said the official.

The impoverished Gaza Strip has been under a crippling blockade since militants based in the enclave captured a soldier in a deadly cross-border raid in 2006.

Israel tightened its grip after the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of Gaza the following year.

Egypt helped enforce the blockade by building an underground barrier to block smuggling tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt, on which Palestinians rely for many basic goods, but which are also used by Hamas to bring in weapons.

Mubarak\’s surprise move to open the border has allowed some additional aid into Gaza, but only a restricted category of Palestinians such as those seeking treatment or study abroad are permitted to cross.

Biden said in a statement that the two leaders also discussed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, political situation in Sudan and Iran\’s controversial nuclear programme.

The US vice president was scheduled to visit Egypt in March, but the trip was cancelled after Mubarak was hospitalised.

His visit to Egypt comes as part of an African tour which will also take him to Kenya and South Africa.

It is Biden\’s first Middle East trip since March when Israel announced it plans to build 1,600 new settler homes in mainly Arab east Jerusalem, causing the collapse of US-led efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


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