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European nations pressing for Gaza port development as part of reconstruction plans

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Palestinian fishermen sail to fish as others pull their fishnet at the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

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Palestinian fishermen sail to fish as others pull their fishnet at the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

BRUSSELS - A European idea to help end the devastating conflict in Gaza is gaining traction: Develop Gaza's port to reopen the besieged territory to the rest of the world through a Cypriot port, with international monitors assuring that no weapons get through.

Across Europe, governments are warming to the proposal to give the 43-kilometre (27-mile) strip on Israel's southern border such an economic lifeline. After all, Gaza was a thriving port in ancient times.

From Berlin to London to the European Union headquarters in Brussels, a blueprint for a post-war Gaza centres both on meeting Israeli security needs and on developing Gaza to improve living conditions there. The latter implies that borders with neighbours Israel and Egypt — and the sea — be as transparent as conditions allow.

"It's very important that the blockage of Gaza is lifted so that there can be movement of necessary goods, materials," said EU Commission spokesman Peter Stano. "That means all the blocked border crossings need to be opened so that Gaza can really develop."

Hamas has demanded the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade imposed on the coastal territory after the Islamic militant group seized power in 2007. Israel has said the militants must disarm first. The two demands are currently on the table in indirect Israel-Hamas talks in Cairo on a permanent ceasefire deal for Gaza.

The talks are also meant to prepare the ground for sustainable calm on the Gaza-Israel border, following a month of fighting that claimed the lives of nearly 1,900 Palestinians and 67 Israelis.

Germany and France have already proposed to re-activate the EU border mission in Rafah with Egypt but there is also an emerging consensus in Europe that the development of the Gaza port should be an integral part of the reconstruction effort, officials in several EU capitals said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the precarious nature of the current ceasefire and the uncertainty of the peace process.

"If you want to take seriously the idea of reconstruction, that is one major idea to pursue," Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank said of developing Gaza's port. "This gives Gaza a direct entry and access point to the world."

As part of EU proposals, the international community should help build a Gaza seaport for goods and passengers, with international inspection points both in Gaza and in a transit harbour in Larnaca, Cyprus to make sure weapons do not get smuggled in, said a source with access to deliberations of European diplomats in the region.

The Cyprus government has said it could be used as "a repository" destined for Gaza. Germany said that a port for Gaza would certainly be welcome and make economic sense, even if such plans were premature at this stage. A British Parliamentary report on Wednesday recommended that the government "should also support the implementation of existing plans to open Gaza's port."

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted last week that "Gaza must become the window of Palestine to the Mediterranean and its port to the world."

Even though it is still unclear if the current ceasefire will hold, Norway has already announced a donor conference for reconstruction, tentatively set for the beginning of September. Finding funds for the buildup of the port could be important.

In the past the EU has been the biggest contributor to Gaza redevelopment and has complained bitterly when EU-funded projects were destroyed in subsequent military operations. "Of course, we are concerned every time the EU projects are affected. We are concerned every time the UN premises are affected," Stano said.

The blockade has not only affected seafaring trade but also kept Gaza fishermen within a 4 mile coastal zone, unable to hunt in waters beyond for risk of being shot at by Israeli gunboats.

In 2010, nine activists on a Turkish boat died in an Israeli raid on a protest flotilla trying to circumvent the Israeli restrictions, with each side accusing the other of starting the violence.

Once, Gaza city was at the centre of regional trade and travel, an important stop on the Incense Road of trade between the Mediterranean and the East from the 7th century BC. Until World War I, Gaza seaport was a main hub for import and export trade to southern Palestine and its hinterland, including Jordan and Iraq.

Since 1967, Israel has exercised full control of Gaza's coastline and territorial waters, blocking ships from reaching the city. Gaza seaport remains the only Mediterranean port closed to shipping.

As part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Netherlands and France governments committed $42.8 million to the reconstruction of the Gaza seaport and to the training of port personnel. All construction was halted due to the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in 2000. Two years later, the Israeli navy attacked the Palestinian naval police base and patrol boats in Gaza, causing extensive damage to the harbour.

Reopening the port would offer a breath of fresh air reconstruction funds alone could not buy, said Levy.

"Money is an issue, but is not the main issue. The main issue is getting stuff in and — ultimately — getting stuff out."

___

Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak and Karin Laub contributed from Gaza City, Kirsten Grieshaber from Berlin, Danica Kirka from London and Menelaos Hadjicostis from Nicosia.

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