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EU presses Israel to allow 'a better life' for Gaza

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Ashton visited Gaza on Sunday
  • The EU high representative is on a 3-day trip to the region
  • Mitchell held brief talks with Mubarak in Cairo

(CNN) -- The European Union's top foreign affairs representative visited Gaza on Sunday and urged Israel to ease its embargo of the Palestinian territory to allow "a better life" for its residents.

"I'm very keen that we're able to provide for the ordinary people of Gaza a better life than the one I saw today," Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, told reporters. "To do that we need to do a number of things -- supporting the economy, increasing the potential, allowing exports to come out of Gaza, all with the framework that the security of Israel is extremely important in this and needs to be assured."

Israel announced in June that it would loosen its embargo, allowing more civilian goods and construction materials into Hamas-ruled Gaza while still banning military equipment and weapons. The decision came three days after a deadly Israeli raid on a humanitarian aid convoy that attempted to run the blockade and dock in the impoverished territory.

Gaza is ruled by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement that is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union. Ashton's comments came a day after talks with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank, which is run by Hamas rival Fatah.

Ashton said the EU remains committed both to the Palestinian Authority and to a "democratic and viable Palestinian state" and pledged 40 million euros ($52 million U.S.) in direct financial support to the Palestinian Authority. She called on Israel to fully implement its revised policy toward Gaza.

Ashton also announced the launch of a joint recovery program that aims to support private sector development in Gaza territory in order to revitalize the economy. Ashton called on Palestinians to overcome their differences in order to build their own state and said she would like to see the Palestinian Authority return to Gaza.

Her three-day Middle East visit corresponded with a visit by U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who is pushing for direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Mitchell met Saturday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and other Palestinian officials, then held talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite a spate of rumors about his failing health, the 82-year-old Mubarak held a brief meeting with Mitchell and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. The main focus of the talks was to convince the Palestinians and Israelis to move from uup-to-now fruitless indirect talks to direct negotiations, which were halted when Israel launched its three-week bombardment of Gaza in December 2008.

Mitchell, 77-year old former senator and diplomat, has been trying to coax the two sides back to the table. But the Palestinians argue that as long as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, expand the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem and demolish Palestinian homes in the city, direct talks are impossible.

The Israelis say that direct talks must go ahead, and only then will Israel initiate confidence-building measures.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.