GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Germany's foreign minister paid a rare visit to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Monday, calling on Israel to ease a blockade on the territory and urging Hamas prevent rockets from being fired into Israel.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier became the latest Western diplomat, including U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, to tour Gaza since a 50-day war with Israel last summer.
Israel launched its offensive in response to heavy rocket fire. More than 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side were killed. An estimated 18,000 homes in Gaza were destroyed, and thousands more damaged.
The European Union considers Hamas a terror group. Steinmeier was accompanied by gunmen who report to Hamas during their visit, as are all VIP's visiting Gaza.
While international donors have pledged billions of dollars in aid, much of the money has not materialized and little reconstruction has taken place.
Steinmeier called for more action to rebuild and improve Gaza's troubled economy. "This requires the opening of crossing points" by Israel, he said.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade over Gaza since Hamas seized control in 2007, and all reconstruction materials must enter through Israeli-controlled crossings. Israel has eased the blockade to allow more materials to enter since the war, but officials say more are needed.
Bickering between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas has also hindered the process, since both sides have demanded control over border crossings.
Steinmeier said it would be difficult to rebuild Gaza while the rocket attacks continue. "This city should not be a launching pad for rockets into Israel," he said.
Hamas has largely honored a cease-fire that ended the fighting last August, but smaller militant groups occasionally carry out attacks, including one last week. Israel holds Hamas responsible, and it responded with airstrikes on militant training sites.
Steinmeier did not meet Hamas officials. The group nonetheless called the visit "an important step."
Steinmeier toured battered areas in eastern Gaza and inaugurated an expansion at a U.N. school. Later Monday, Steinmeier toured a southern Israeli community that was hit by rockets and mortars last year.