EU to Israel: remove obtacles to entry of Gaza aid

JERUSALEM, Feb 4 (Reuters) - The European Union has complained to Israel that it was obstructing the entry of needed supplies into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, despite assurances the restrictions would be eased after the 22-day offensive.

In a Feb. 2 letter obtained by Reuters on Wednesday, the EU presidency expressed "grave concern regarding the current humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the obstacles that we face in the delivery of aid".

"Addressing the plight of ordinary people in Gaza and supporting the PA in its relief efforts are our priorities and, as we understand, also yours," EU leaders wrote, referring to President Mahmoud Abbas's Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

"Your government gave us assurances regarding access of humanitarian aid and aid workers to the Gaza Strip... Since then we have not witnessed much improvement of the overall restrictions," they wrote.

While Israel has opened Gaza's border crossings to larger amounts of food and medicine since last month's war, it has balked at letting in construction materials, including glass, steel and cement, needed to rebuild the thousands of Palestinian homes, roads and buildings destroyed or damaged.

Israel has also blocked Abbas' government from transferring cash to the Gaza Strip to pay its workers, undercutting its reconstruction efforts, Palestinian and Western officials said.

Israeli officials say building materials and cash could be used by Hamas to build rockets, bunkers and smuggling tunnels.

EU leaders said the nearly 200 truckloads of aid currently entering Gaza each day were "far below the minimal requirements to answer the humanitarian and commercial needs" of Gaza's 1.5 million residents. They said 500 aid trucks were needed.

In the letter, the EU leaders asked Israel to allow automatic entry of all humanitarian goods "with perhaps the exception of a very limited list of items that may be considered very 'sensitive'".

They said Israel should expand the capacity of its border crossings and not require "project by project" clearance to bring in goods.

The letter was signed by Czech Foreign Minster Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel.

It was sent to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Humanitarian Aid Minister Isaac Herzog. (Reporting by Adam Entous; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)