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Mideast envoy Blair in first, surprise Gaza visit

Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair arrived in the Gaza Strip on Sunday in his first visit to the Hamas-run enclave since being appointed Middle East Quartet envoy.

world Updated: Mar 01, 2009 14:56 IST
Joseph Krauss
Joseph Krauss
AFP
Hindustantimes

Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair arrived in the Gaza Strip on Sunday in his first visit to the Hamas-run enclave since being appointed Middle East Quartet envoy.

"I wanted to come to hear for myself first-hand from people in Gaza, whose lives have been so badly impacted by the recent conflict," Blair said at a UN-run school in the northern town of Beit Hanun.

"These are the people who need to be the focus of all our efforts for peace and progress from now on," he said.

"I will relay their account of events, their assessment of what is needed for reconstruction, their goals for rebuilding a vibrant sector" to the international conference on Gaza reconstruction in Egypt on Monday.

The Middle East Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- is due to meet on the sidelines of the conference in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort.

Blair was due to meet with Gaza businesspeople, members of civil society and representatives of the water authority later, British consulate officials said. He was also due to attend an English class at the school.

Blair was appointed Quartet representative in June 2007 after he stepped down following 10 years as British prime minister.

He had planned to make his maiden visit to the impoverished coastal strip in July 2008, but the trip was cancelled over security concerns.

Since his appointment, Blair has been spearheading several projects aimed at revitalising the Palestinian economy, including three planned industrial zones in the occupied West Bank.

He has also pushed development projects in Gaza, including the repair of the water treatment plant, where a reservoir burst in March 2007, flooding a village with raw sewage and drowning five Palestinians.

The Quartet has refused to have dealings with Hamas, which swept Palestinian elections in January 2006, saying the group first had to renounce violence, recognise Israel and agree to abide by past peace deals.

The Quartet -- the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia -- in 2003 adopted a "road map" intended to lead by stages to a permanent settlement of the Israel-Palestinian crisis, based on the principle of the existence of two states.

The plan has struggled to make any headways since it was launched, however. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, revived at a US conference in November 2007, have been on ice since the December-January war in Gaza that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Hillary Clinton, on her first trip to the Middle East as US Secretary of state, will attend the donors' conference at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and will also join the Quartet meeting.

US President Barack Obama has vowed to vigorously pursue the stalled peace talks.