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EU urges Israelis to halt Gaza operation

Written by: Staff

STRASBOURG, France, July 5 (Reuters) The European Union called on Israelis and Palestinians today to reduce tensions, saying a kidnapped Israeli soldier should be freed and Israel end its military operation in Gaza.

Finnish Foreign Trade and Development Minister Paula Lehtomaki, whose country took over the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, called Israel's detention of Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians unacceptable.

''We are concerned at the level of civilian suffering,'' she said of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories.

''Both sides have a duty to protect civilians.'' Lehtomaki said an Israeli soldier whose kidnap by Palestinian militants triggered the current crisis should be freed and Palestinians should cease attacks on Israeli targets.

''Israel in its turn should end the military operation,'' she said. ''It is the EU's view that all activities that are not in compliance with international law must be stopped.'' ''We cannot accept the idea of collective punishment targeted at large sections of the population.'' Israel, which pulled out of the Gaza Strip last year, sent troops and tanks into the south of the territory a week ago after Palestinian gunmen, some from the Hamas armed wing, seized Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid.

Israel has also detained members of the Hamas cabinet and lawmakers in the occupied West Bank.

Lehtomaki said the European Union regretted the damage to Palestinian infrastructure by Israeli strikes and said the bloc, the main foreign aid donor to the Palestinians, would not automatically foot the bill for repairs.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called recent events ''a worrying escalation'' and said they had considerably complicated EU efforts to establish an international aid mechanism to assist needy Palestinians.

''Everything must be done to prevent the humanitarian situation still worsening,'' she said.

Despite the comments, some groups in the parliament accused the EU presidency and commission of pulling its punches towards Israel by delivering only muted criticism of its actions.


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