German Foreign Minister visits southern Israeli school repeatedly hit by rockets from Gaza

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter SteinmeierGerman Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

On a Midde East tour, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Monday a school on Israel’s border with Gaza which has been repeatedly targeted by rocket fire from Gaza.

The minister came to the Shaar HaNegev regional council after returning from a visit to the Gaza Strip where he said that more efforts are needed to rebuild and to improve Gaza’s economy.

This, he said, “requires the opening of crossing points by Israel.” But he conceded it would be difficult to do this without an end to rocket fire.

The visit did not include meetings with Hamas, the Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since it seized the area in a bloody 2007 coup.

“I am happy to be here, it was important for me to come,” Steinmeier said at the Israeli school.  “We need to remember that on both sides there are students, children who have grown up with three wars who live under threat and who suffer on both sides of the fence.”

Steinmeier on Sunday held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, and also visited Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah, calling on both sides to revive stalled peace negotiations.

Speaking at a joint press conference with the German minister, Netanyahu reiterated that he was committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, calling on the Palestinian leadership to return to negotiations unconditionally.

“I remain committed to the idea that the only way we can achieve a lasting peace is through the concept of two states for two peoples – a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish nation state of Israel,” he said.

He said he had discussed with Mr Steinmeier the “common quest to move forward on peace with the Palestinians”.

“I think the only way to move that is through direct negotiations,” the Israeli premier said. “Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority has moved away from these negotiations.”

It is a position Netanyahu publicly declared last month in a meeting with European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini. Also last month, Netanyahu’s new government announced that it would “strive to reach a peace agreement” as part of its agreed policy guidelines and Interior Minister Silvan Shalom has since been appointed to head any future talks with the Palestinians.

The last round of peace talks, spearheaded by the United States, broke down in April 2014 after the PA agreed a unity government with Hamas.

Netanyahu also told Steinmeier: “Tell the Palestinians to stop their campaign to delegitimize Israel. Tell them to get back to the negotiating table. Tell them that we should negotiate without preconditions,” the Prime Minister said.

He called on the German minister to exert pressure on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to halt all unilateral actions against Israel and to reignite peace talks.

“We have to send a clear message to the Palestinians and I hope you will use your meetings with them to do it,” Netanyahu told Steinmeier.

He specifically addressed the PA’s recent move to have Israel banned from international football.

Despite the Palestinians’ unilateral actions, Netanyahu said he was still interested in renewing negotiations, emphasizing that he was committed to “two states for two peoples.”

As a symbol of  goodwill, Netanyahu asserted, Israel was willing to take confidence measures, including allowing 800 trucks filled with humanitarian goods into Gaza on a daily basis, as well as “additional steps.”

Steinmeier is one of six international foreign ministers visiting Israel in the coming weeks with plans to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.