German Foreign Minister in Middle East Westerwelle Walks Diplomatic Tightrope on First Trip to Gaza

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited the Gaza Strip on Monday in a bid to pressure Israel to lift its embargo. Amid the war ruins and potholed streets, the minister got an impression of the Palestinians' plight -- and was visibly moved.


By in Gaza City

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited the Gaza Strip for a few hours on Monday in a bid to pressure Israel to loosen its blockade of the impoverished region. He was the first German cabinet minister to visit Gaza in years.

His itinerary included a school, one of the few projects run by the United Nations with the approval of the Israelis and Hamas. Some 50 young girls packed into a tiny classroom greeted Westerwelle with a cheerful "Guten Morgen" ("Good Morning") in German.

"It is a pleasure to look into so many pretty, happy faces," said the minister, beaming and evidently moved by the welcome. He squeezed himself onto a bench next to a girl. He went on to visit every classroom. "Work hard," he told the children. "You too," replied one girl.

Israel has watched his trip closely, and with suppressed displeasure. Westerwelle held talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Jerusalem on Sunday. It is his fourth visit to the Middle East since he became foreign minister last year, but the excursion to Gaza has turned this trip into the highlight of his involvement in the region so far.

Westerwelle is the first member of a German government to visit Gaza since it was sealed off by the Israeli army at the end of 2007. He did not hold talks with Hamas representatives in Gaza because the European Union does not acknowledge that organization as a negotiating partner.

A spokesman for Hamas said it was "insulting" when international emissaries refused to meet members of its leadership.

'We Want Exports From Gaza to be Allowed'

The Israeli army only permits few strictly controlled imports and has imposed a ban on virtually all exports. As a result, the humanitarian situation in Gaza has been dire for years. A minor loosening of the embargo in July has brought little relief. "We want exports from Gaza to be allowed because economic development there would deprive the radicals of some of the foundation for their ideology," said Westerwelle.

The Israeli government believes the blockade has helped cut down the number of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. But international pressure on Israel has been growing and the government made some concessions following the assault by Israeli troops on a flotilla of boats that tried to break the blockade at the end of May.

The fact that Israel granted Westerwelle permission to enter Gaza is a sign that Israel's stance has softened slightly. It had forbidden German Development Minister Dirk Niebel to enter Gaza in June.

Well aware that his Gaza visit could stir ill feeling in Israel, Westerwelle was at pains to find a diplomatic balance by vocally defending Israeli's right to exist and directing strong words at Iran. "Israel's security is non-negotiable," he said.

In a further diplomatic gesture, he met relatives of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who has been held in Gaza for more than four years after being abducted by Hamas in a cross-border raid in June 2006. German mediators have been trying to negotiate his release, unsuccessfully so far.

'We Will Not Forget Gaza'

After visiting the Beach Elementary School in Gaza City, Westerwelle's motorcade of six armored cars sped past donkey carts and playing children to a sewage plant financed with German money.

Here, 17 camera crews from all major Arab TV broadcasters were waiting for him. "We will not forget Gaza, we must not forget Gaza," Westerwelle told them. That wasn't enough for the journalists. Would he speak to Hamas, they wanted to know. Why was he only visiting Gaza now? They wanted to hear him voice sharp criticism of Israel, but he evaded their questions and stuck to general statements.

"If 1.5 million people live in a sealed-off area for years, it can't work," he said, remaining true to Germany's policy of being an honest broker between the two sides in the Middle East conflict. In a further sign of his determination not to anger the Israelis, called again on Hamas to release Shalit. "We are doing what we can to be helpful in this question," he said.

The brief visit was enough to give Westerwelle an impression of the poverty in Gaza -- children playing on rubbish dumps, old men collecting construction waste on the side of the road in order to build rudimentary shelters. The Israelis only allow limited imports of building materials. The streets are filled with rickety old cars held together with string and parcel wrapping paper because there are virtually no spare parts left.

At the end of his trip, Westerwelle got in his Mercedes limousine and was driven off. His route passed a cemetery. A sign outside in Arabic read: "Please no more burials here, no room left."


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