By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign News
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
JERUSALEM, June 16 -- Former president Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were being treated "more like animals than human beings" by Israeli rules that have limited travel, banned the import of all but basic goods and prevented reconstruction since a three-week war ended earlier this year.
"Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself," he said.
Carter called the situation "a terrible human rights crime," noting that the restrictions force people to rely on smugglers for many items.
"This abuse must cease. The crimes must be investigated. The wall must be brought down, and the basic right of freedom must come to you," he said at a United Nations school during a visit to Gaza that included meetings with top officials of the Islamist Hamas group, which holds power in the area.
Israel has imposed economic, financial and other restrictions on Gaza in an effort to undermine the group, whose armed wing has fired thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel. In response to the rocket fire, Israel launched a war against Hamas in late December. Israeli officials say they will maintain the embargo until they are certain that shipments into Gaza will not benefit the organization, whose founding charter advocates Israel's eradication.
The United States considers Hamas a terrorist group, though President Obama has called on Israel to relax the restrictions and acknowledged in a recent speech in Cairo that the organization has support among Palestinians.
Carter, who met with Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said he told the group's officials that they should halt attacks, recognize Israel and join peace talks.
"They have made statements and taken actions that suggest they are ready," Carter said, referring to a recent meeting he had in Syria with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Carter said Meshal told him that Hamas would accept a peace agreement if Palestinians approve it in a referendum.
Haniyeh said the group would accept an agreement if Israel returned all land it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"If there is a real project that aims to resolve the Palestinian cause on establishing a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, under full Palestinian sovereignty, we will support it," Haniyeh said. He did not say whether that would involve recognizing Israel or agreeing to halt Hamas's armed resistance.
The United States has no official contact with Hamas, and a State Department official said Carter went to Gaza as a private citizen.