By Motasem Dalloul
GAZA CITY — Israel stands behind the last-minute cancellation of Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair’s visit to Gaza on Tuesday, July 15, a visit that would have brought more of the sufferings in the besieged strip to the world, Hamas officials affirmed.
"The Israelis did their best to stop his visit," Sami Abu-Zuhri, Hamas spokesman, told IslamOnline.net.
Blair, who was appointed representative of the Middle East peace Quartet more than a year ago, was due to make his first trip to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Tuesday.
Just hours before his arrival to the sealed-off strip, the former British prime minister cancelled the visit, citing a "specific security threat."
"Unfortunately we had to cancel the visit because of a specific security threat… we had to turn back on the road," Blair’s spokeswoman Ruti Winterstein told Agence France Presse (AFP).
Israel said it had no information on why the visit was cancelled.
But Abu-Zuhri described Israel’s claim as a ‘big lie’.
"Confidential sources confirmed that the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, has called Blair when he reached the Erez Crossing… and told him that there are security dangers in order to make him cancel his visit," he said.
An official at Israel’s Shin Beth intelligence agency told AFP on condition of anonymity that the agency warned Blair shortly before his arrival at the Gaza border that a "terror organization" was planning to attack his motorcade.
Abu-Zhuri said Blair office’s claims about security threats contradict with statements by John Ging, head of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza who is also the coordinator of Blair’s visit, about arrangements for the visit.
"He (Ging) said that there is a complete consent on the security measures taken for Blair’s visit to the Strip."
Hamas, which controls the strip since June 2007, has officially welcomed Blair and has taken several security preparations ahead of the visit.
It has set up checkpoints in areas he was expected to tour, banning cars from using roads and lining streets with black-clad policemen carrying AK-47s.
Hamas officials say they were looking forward to Blair’s visit to highlight the grave impact of the siege on the 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza.
"We didn’t expect anything from him nor from anyone of those who visited the strip," said Abu-Zuhri.
"But at the same time, we appreciate those who come and visit and speak with us as they can reflect the sufferings of the Gazans as they feel it on the ground."
Israel has been closing the Gaza Strip’s exits to the outside world since Hamas took control of the territory last June of the last year.
Adding insult to injury, a US-led Western economic boycott has left the impoverished Strip reeling with its economy on the verge of collapse.
For people in the besieged territory, Blair’s visit would have opened a window on their sufferings.
"His visit signaled some kind of a hope for the Quartet to ask the Israelis to end the siege," Adli al-Gayed, a policeman, told IOL.
Gayed, however, was not all sure of what to expect from Blair.
"Many international personalities have visited the strip and all what they did is wailing on the life of the Gazans without moving any single step towards elevating the siege."
For Ahmed Aref, he had only a faint glimmer of hope that was now thwarted by the visit’s cancellation.
"I expected that Blair would come to see how Gazans live and so he would be keen to push the Israelis to left the siege in order to facilitate our life," said Aref, a 40-year-old unemployed worker.
"But, when I heard that he won’t come, this didn’t change anything for me as many before him came to the Strip and did nothing," he somberly added.
"We only hear words and remarks of sympathy and calls for endurance."