BERLIN/JERUSALEM, June 20 (Reuters) - Germany sharply
criticised Israel on Sunday for denying its development minister
entry to the Gaza Strip to visit a humanitarian project
co-funded by Berlin.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he regretted
Israel's decision, while Development Minister Dirk Niebel -- who
is on a four-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories
-- said it was a big diplomatic mistake.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the
move was part of Israel's long-standing policy on Gaza, which
the Islamist group Hamas controls.
We do not allow senior politicians into Gaza because Hamas
will manipulate such visits to gain legitimacy, said Palmor.
Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip after Hamas
seized control there from the rival Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in 2007.
The German Development Ministry said it had lobbied until
the last minute for Niebel to be allowed into Gaza on Sunday,
but had been informed on Saturday that it would not be possible.
Niebel told the German daily Leipziger Volkszeitung he was
dismayed that Israel was making it so difficult for even its
truest friends to understand its behaviour.
Israel has come under heavy international criticism since
its forces boarded aid ships heading for Gaza last month and
killed nine pro-Palestinian activists. Israel says its commandos
had come under attack and were acting in self-defence.
About 1.5 million people live in Gaza, of whom about 1
million depend to some extent on regular supplies of United
Nations and other foreign aid.
Israel announced last week it would ease its land blockade
of Gaza, but Westerwelle said Germany and its EU partners would
continue to push for a complete end to the blockade.
Israel said on Sunday it would soon start allowing into the
enclave all types of goods except for weapons and materials that
can be used to make them.