(Reuters) – Arab League chief Amr Moussa visited the Gaza Strip on Sunday, the highest Arab official to do so since its seizure by Hamas Islamists in 2007, and called for an end to Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian territory.
Moussa crossed into the enclave from Egypt, two weeks after Israel’s deadly interception of a Gaza aid flotilla.
“This blockade…must be lifted and must be broken and the Arab League decision is very clear in this regard,” Moussa said.
Egypt had kept its Gaza border largely closed, bolstering Israel’s embargo, since Hamas, which won a 2006 election, seized sole control of the Gaza Strip in a war with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction three years ago.
But Cairo reopened its Rafah crossing with the enclave after Israeli marines killed nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists in a May 31 raid on a Turkish-flagged aid vessel where passengers with metal rods and knives confronted the boarding party.
Palestinian and Arab League officials said Moussa’s visit was also aimed at giving momentum to reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah that Egypt has sponsored but which have failed to bridge deep mistrust between the two rivals.
In an apparent bid to avoid any impression of Arab League recognition of Hamas’s Gaza takeover, Moussa met Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, in his home rather than in his office.
“We see this visit as a practical step along the way toward breaking the siege,” Haniyeh, with Moussa at his side, told reporters after their hour-long meeting.
But Senior Fatah leader Ashraf Goma said Moussa did not hear anything new from the various political factions and, therefore, ” the visit showed the gap remained wide and reconciliation was yet a far reaching goal.”
Goma said Hamas’s belief it could gain politically from the aftermath of the deadly Israeli raid on the Flotilla made it less willing to reconcile.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on Friday with Middle East envoy Tony Blair on the blockade.
Echoing an Israeli statement after that meeting, Netanyahu told reporters on Sunday Israel would continue discussions with the international community to prevent weapons and military equipment from reaching Gaza and to allow in humanitarian aid, an apparent signal it was open to revising blockade procedures.
Amid an international outcry over the bloodshed in the flotilla raid, Israel has faced mounting pressure to ease or lift a blockade critics have described as collective punishment.
Speaking at a news conference as he concluded a day-long visit, Moussa voiced satire at Israel’s “trivial” ease up of the blockade.
“Taking Mayonnaise and Tomatoe salad off the ban list is not a relaxation of the siege. It is a trivial thing that makes someone laughs,” Moussa said.
Meeting on Sunday with members of his Likud party, Netanyahu said a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, Jacob Turkel, would head a committee that Israel intends to establish to investigate the raid on the flotilla, officials said.
Pending the outcome of consultations with the United States, Israel has not made any formal announcement of the composition of the committee, which Israeli officials said would likely include foreign observers.
Washington has backed a U.N. Security Council statement that called for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation, conforming to international standards” into the Israeli naval interception.
The White House has said it is open to different ways of ensuring the credibility of an Israeli-led investigation, including international participation.
Israel has rejected any external, international board of inquiry, saying it had a right to launch a probe on its own.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)