UK minister: better ways than Gaza flotilla

By Anshel Pfeffer and Martin Bright, June 29, 2011
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Alistair Burt  with Gilad Shalit's father Noam

Alistair Burt with Gilad Shalit's father Noam

Middle East minister Alistair Burt became the first Foreign Office minister to visit the Gaza Strip in five years on Tuesday, as he toured a United Nations school in Jabalia refugee camp and met business leaders in Gaza City.

Following his visit he said: "I was struck today by the need for further progress to allow imports by UNRWA and others to complete much-needed projects and to facilitate exports. While we will never underestimate the security needs of Israel, the high levels of unemployment, collapse of private sector business, and traffic through the tunnels, still indicate that more could and should be done to improve the situation."

Israel has been wary of authorising the entry of foreign diplomats and politicians into Gaza since the Hamas takeover of the Strip in 2006. In recent months, there has been a gradual easing of this policy and as an Israeli official said this week: "We are not worried that he will try to make any provocation or hold talks with Hamas."

The official Foreign Office line is that the situation in Gaza is "unsustainable"; however Mr Burt made it clear that he was opposed to the latest flotilla heading to Israel. He told the JC that the action by pro-Palestinian campaigners was a political gesture and a challenge to Israel's authority. "There are better ways to do this in humanitarian terms, and better ways politically."

He clarified the UK's position on the potential recognition of a Palestinian state in September, saying it was not expressing an opinion on something that might not happen. "We would much rather the time was used to see if something constructive could be done. I am here to encourage the Israeli government and the Palestinians to get back around the table."

He added that while the UK government recognised the Jewish character of Israel, he also understood that the recognition of the "Jewish state" demanded by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was not easy for the Palestinians. The Foreign Office does not believe Mr Netanyahu should make this issue a precondition on talks.

Following his tour of Gaza, Mr Burt visited Sderot which suffered for years from rocket fire from Gaza, meeting Mayor David Buskila and local residents. Mr Burt also met Noam and Aviva Shalit, parents of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

    Last updated: 2:21pm, June 29 2011