June 18, 2009
By Rory McCarthyFormer US president Jimmy Carter met Hamas leaders in Gaza for three hours today , becoming the Islamist movement’s most high profile western visitor in recent years. Carter spent the day in Gaza seeing for himself the destruction from Israel’s war in January before holding talks with Ismail Haniyeh, the former Palestinian prime minister, and other Hamas officials. Before the meeting he spoke forcefully against the two-year-old economic blockade of Gaza and the war, saying they had brought “death, destruction, pain and suffering to the people here”. Under the blockade exports are banned and imports into Gaza are limited to some humanitarian goods – concrete, metal, glass and other construction materials in particular are forbidden. Egypt has also largely kept its crossing into Gaza at Rafah closed. “Tragically, the international community largely ignores the cries for help, while the citizens of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings,” Carter told teachers and parents at an awards ceremony for UN refugee school pupils. Carter said he had asked Israeli officials to explain the blockade and why items like paper and crayons were banned from Gaza. “I sought an explanation for this policy in Israel, but did not receive a satisfactory answer – because there is none,” he said. “The responsibility for this terrible human rights crime lies in Jerusalem, Cairo, Washington, and throughout the international community. This abuse must cease; the crimes must be investigated; the walls must be brought down, and the basic right of freedom must come to you,” he told the crowd. He said Palestinian statehood could not come at the expense of Israeli security, while Israeli security could not come at the expense of Palestinian statehood. Although Carter, who first visited Gaza 36 years ago, stressed he was in Gaza as a private citizen, he said he would be meeting US officials to discuss his visit to the region and would submit a report to President Barack Obama. Earlier in the trip he met the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas, in Damascus, as well as travelling to Lebanon, Israel and the occupied West Bank. Carter said he would continue to urge Hamas to accept that it should renounce violence, accept previous peace agreements and recognise Israel – the conditions set by Israel and the international community. He would also discuss the case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants three years ago who is held somewhere in Gaza. Carter, who met Shalit’s parents last week, brought with him a letter for the soldier, and said he was pressing Israel to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange. After the meeting, Carter said he was encouraging reconciliation of the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. Each faction should release prisoners it held from the other side in the West Bank and Gaza. Haniyeh, who led Hamas to victory in Palestinian elections three years ago, said he had been encouraged by Obama’s speech in Cairo this month, which showed “a new tongue, a new language, a new spirit”. Hamas wanted to end the conflict and to “establish a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with sovereignty” and with a capital in east Jerusalem, he said. The Islamist movement was working with other factions in Gaza to hold a ceasefire in attacks on Israel, he said. Violence in Gaza has declined significantly since the war, although there are sporadic attacks by both Gazan militants and Israeli forces.