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Israel takes diplomats to border, urges against aid flotillas to Gaza

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israeli deputy foreign minister escorted diplomats to Gaza border crossing
  • "No need for any flotillas," Ayalon said
  • Israel announced it would ease blockade
  • Naval blockade remains in place
  • Israel allows tour guides to work in West Bank cities

Jerusalem (CNN) -- An Israeli official escorted more than 80 diplomats on a tour of the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza on Thursday, urging them to prevent their citizens from participating in aid flotillas to the Palestinian territory.

"As you can see, there is no need for any flotillas," Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said in a statement released by his office. "These are extremely provocative and are backed by the radical alliance of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced an easing of the blockade of Gaza that included expanding operations at the existing land crossings and streamlining the authorization process for international aid groups the government recognizes.

But the naval blockade remains in place.

"We have been working with the recognized international organizations for many months to implement this decision," Ayalon said of the easing. "We wanted to bring you here as representatives of your governments, because seeing is believing."

The Israeli decision came weeks after Israeli naval ships sparred with a flotilla of aid ships heading to Gaza. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the incident, which drew international criticism.

Ayalon said Israel's new policy should double or even triple the amount of goods sent into Gaza.

"The only bottlenecks that will remain will be on the Palestinian side," he said.

But the Palestinians disagreed.

"This is not a solution, they should open all the terminals into Gaza for free movement of goods. Israel is just trying to stop the international pressure," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told CNN. "They are just trying to fool the international community."

George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, visited Kerem Shalom crossing Wednesday and told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the United States would work with Israel to ensure goods are reaching people in Gaza.

On another economic front, Israeli tour guides will be able to work in the West Bank city of Jericho for the first time in a decade after the Israeli government approved the move Thursday.

The change in that policy "is intended to contribute to the Palestinian and Israeli economy and promote tourism," said a statement posted on the Israeli Defence Force website. "This step is part of a broader measure designed to help the Palestinian population."

Jericho, the place of the Israelites' return from bondage in Egypt, was the first of five West Bank towns to revert to Palestinian control in March 2005. Another, Bethlehem, was opened to tour guides last week.

CNN's Paul Colsey contributed to this report.