BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The Israeli government on Wednesday denied an official European Union delegation entry to the Gaza Strip, claiming the visit would strengthen the ruling Hamas movement.
Six members of an EU Parliament delegation to the Palestinian Legislative Council were due to visit Gaza from Oct. 27-30 in a trip largely focused on social, economic and humanitarian issues, including visits to UNRWA health centers, schools, food distribution centers, rehabilitation centers and sports clubs.
The MEPs, from a cross-section of political parties representing six EU member states, were informed in an email by Israeli authorities that they would not be allowed into Gaza via the Erez crossing for the three-day visit, which also included trips to Christian schools, a sports clubs and the University of Palestine.
Emer Costello, chair of the European Parliament's delegation to the Palestinian Legislative Council, said she was "astounded and dismayed" by Israel's decision to refuse an official EU visit.
"Despite interventions by the President of Parliament and other distinguished Parliamentarians, the Israeli Authorities are preventing elected members of an official delegation from paying a humanitarian visit to this ravaged and impoverished little country," Costello said in a statement.
In an email to the delegation obtained by Ma'an, an Israeli diplomat in Europe responded that the delegation was denied entry "in line with the policy according to which Israel does not facilitate visits to the Gaza Strip which will strengthen Hamas, a terror organization designated as such also by the European Union."
The diplomat, David Saranga, also claimed in the message that Israel did not refuse an official visit of the EU delegation to Gaza but rather "refused the use of its territory to enter the Gaza Strip."
Costello said Israel's decision was "deplorable and without foundation," adding that she had requested that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton take up the issue with Israeli authorities.
The individual members of the delegation will also raise the issue with the governments of their respective member states, she added.'Punishment for EU guidelines'
Margrete Auken, a Danish MEP who was scheduled to take part in the trip, told Ma'an that the visit had originally been planned for last November but was canceled due to Israel's war on Gaza.
It was therefore "crucial for us to make it (this year) as Gaza is extremely isolated under the siege," Auken said, adding that she believes Israel denied the MEPs entry to Gaza in order to punish the EU for guidelines issued earlier this year banning member states from funding projects in settlements.
"I think the reason the Israeli government is doing this is to punish the EU for the guidelines on settlements. ... they want to get rid of them, but that of course will never happen," she said.
Other MEPs have expressed similar sentiments in private, according to a European Parliament official.
Auken said that the six MEPs were "furious" about the decision to cancel the visit.
"Israel is responsible for taking care of the people of Gaza and does not live up to the burden of democracy," she added.
The six MEPs are planning to meet with UNRWA officials on Sunday either in the West Bank or East Jerusalem in the event that Israel continues to refuse them access to Gaza.
Fatah's international relations committee released a statement condemning the incident and called on Israel to respect international law.
The EU guidelines forbid dealing with or funding Israeli entities that lie outside Israel proper and beyond the so-called 1967 Green Line -- that is, in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights.
They also require any future signed agreements to recognize that these areas are not part of Israel.