French FM urges Israel to lift Gaza blockade

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip and to freeze its policy of building settlements in the West Bank, at the start of a visit to the region on Saturday.

French FM urges Israel to lift Gaza blockade
Kouchner visited east Jerusalem and met UN emergency relief coordinator John Holmes before travelling to Bethlehem in the West Bank to meet officials.

Later he will meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah and is expected to have talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minster Ehud Barak in Jerusalem on Sunday.

'The economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza is especially bad. The blockade directly affects the entire economy and living conditions as well,' Kouchner said in an interview with Al Quds newspaper, published on Saturday.

'We call for the Gaza blockade to be lifted-there must be free movement of both people and goods,' Kouchner told the main Arabic daily in the Palestinian territories.

Israel has kept Gaza under effective lockdown since last June following the territory's takeover by the Islamist movement Hamas, and on January 17 it tightened the blockade before easing it again slightly.

In the interview Kouchner also called on Olmert and Abbas to respect their commitments agreed at the relaunch of Middle East peace talks in the United States last November.

Kouchner's arrival overnight on Friday came just hours after eight Palestinians, including a leading Islamic Jihad commander and members of his family, were killed in what medics and witnesses in the Gaza Strip said was an Israeli air strike.

'Israel must completely freeze settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, dismantle all those deemed illegal, and reopen Palestinian institutions in east Jerusalem, namely the chamber of commerce,' Kouchner told the daily.

'It cannot be said enough that the settlements are an obstacle to peace,' he added.

On Thursday five firms won bids from the Israeli authorities to expand the Har Homa settlement in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians consider to be the capital of their future state.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the move 'doesn't help to build confidence,' while Abbas adviser Adnan Husseini said that if construction continues the Palestinians may suspend peace talks.

Kouchner also called on the Palestinians to take steps to improve conditions for a peace agreement.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Şubat 2008, 18:08