BERLIN, June 21 (Reuters) - Germany denied on Monday that its relations with Israel
had been damaged by a decision to bar Development Minister Dirk Niebel from visiting Gaza
, where he wanted to see a humanitarian project part-funded by Berlin.
Ties have been tested in recent weeks by the Israeli blockade
of the Gaza Strip, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged Israel on Monday to open up the coastal region controlled by Hamas
Niebel has described Israel's refusal to let him enter Gaza during a four-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories as a big diplomatic mistake.
Government spokesman Christoph Steegmans said Chancellor Angela Merkel regretted that Niebel had not been able to visit the project at the weekend.
However, Steegmans told a news conference that he saw no strain to relations with Israel and that he assumed Niebel would be able to complete his visit later.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said the incident had not led to any fundamental change in diplomatic ties. There can always be differences in opinion between friends -- between close friends -- on technical issues, Peschke said.
Israel said on Sunday it does not allow senior foreign politicians into Gaza because Hamas would manipulate such visits to gain legitimacy.
However, Niebel told the German daily Leipziger Volkszeitung that he was dismayed that Israel was making it so difficult for even its truest friends to understand its behaviour.
Westerwelle welcomed Israel's decision to ease the land blockade on Gaza, as a step in the right direction.
But as Germans, Europeans and the international community we still take the view that the Gaza Strip must be completely opened up, Westerwelle added.
Some 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 has come under international fire since its forces boarded an aid ship
heading for the Gaza strip in an operation in which nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed.