EU Foreign Chief Catherine Ashton To Visit Gaza Strip

Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU's new foreign policy chief, is due to arrive shortly in the Gaza Strip. Baroness Ashton will be one of the most senior Western political figures to visit Gaza since Hamas took power. Her arrival in the Palestinian territory comes amid a new push by the EU and US to revive stalled Middle East peace talks. She will later head to Moscow for a meeting of the Middle East Quartet, made up of the EU, US, UN and Russia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in the Russian capital for the talks. The meeting will "demonstrate international support" for indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. The EU is the largest contributor of aid to the Palestinians, delivering 1bn euros a year ($1.4bn; 890m) including support for Palestinian refugees through the UN. Baroness Ashton said she wanted to see for herself the impact the EU's aid has on the ground. During her Middle East tour, she is also scheduled to meet Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli President Shimon Peres. But it is her visit to Gaza which is arousing the most interest, says Jon Donnison, the BBC's Gaza correspondent. Only two European foreign ministers have come to Gaza in the past year, our correspondent notes. Foreign officials are often refused entry by Israel, or their governments choose not to come because they do not recognise Hamas. The visit has been welcomed by the United Nations, which says the blockade of Gaza has left hundreds of thousands in Gaza living in poverty. The head of the UN's refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip, John Ging, said the people of Gaza were hoping for a single outcome from Baroness Ashton's visit - a lifting of the Israeli siege. "It's phenomenally important because people at the policy-making level have to have that first-hand experience to really unravel the complexity, and then also to see the simplicity of the plight of the people and the urgency for action," he said. "We have to have action. A thousand days and a thousand nights of a mediaeval siege is far too much. It's a shame it's a disgrace." Baroness Ashton is on a regional tour that began in Cairo and also includes Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. On Wednesday she visited Jerusalem where she met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and held a joint press conference with Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman. During the conference, she said she hoped that attempts by US special envoy George Mitchell to launch indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians would succeed. Ms Ashton's visit comes as the US and Israel try to bridge divisions over Israeli plans for new building in occupied East Jerusalem. The Palestinians have pulled out of indirect talks because of the plan. Israel's announcement has provoked fresh violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli economic blockade since 2007, when the Islamist movement Hamas took power. Hamas militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel in the past decade. In 2008 Israel launched a three-week offensive against Gaza which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and caused widespread damage to its infrastructure.