Angry Palestinians mob French minister in Gaza

It was a rare visit to Gaza by a foreign dignitary as many prefer to skip it.

Updated: Jan 21, 2011, 22:07 PM IST

Gaza: A crowd of angry Palestinians mobbed the car of French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie as she toured the Gaza Strip on Friday, in a protest her spokeswoman said was sparked by a misunderstanding.

At one stage, men, women and children lay down in the road to block her convoy. Later, eggs and shoes were hurled at the minister`s jeep and demonstrators banged on it with their fists, yelling at the minister to leave Gaza.

The tiny Palestinian enclave is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, whose security forces eventually intervened to make sure Alliot-Marie could continue her trip unhindered.

The protesters were relatives of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons who said they were furious over comments attributed to the minister a day earlier when she met the parents of an Israeli soldier being held captive by Hamas.

After the meeting, some media quoted Alliot-Marie as saying the continued detention of Gilad Shalit, seized by Palestinian fighters in 2006, was a "war crime."

A spokeswoman in her entourage told Reuters: "The minister was misquoted by Israeli media over Shalit`s issue."

Dozens of Palestinians, many brandishing photographs of their imprisoned sons and husbands, briefly prevented Alliot-Marie from leaving a hospital that was badly damaged during a 2009 Israeli-offensive and which France is rebuilding.

"Get out of Gaza!" read one banner.

It was a rare visit to Gaza by a foreign dignitary, with most government officials preferring to skip the coastal enclave and travel instead to the West Bank, which is run by Hamas`s political rival -- the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

Alliot-Marie is making her first trip to the region since being appointed foreign minister last year.

On Thursday, she met the parents of Shalit, who has dual French-Israeli nationality. He is believed to be still alive, but Hamas has denied him any contact with the outside world.

Gazans said they were angry that Alliot-Marie had made no mention of several thousand Palestinians held in Israeli prisons for security-related reasons.

Germany has tried for months to broker a deal to secure Shalit`s release in return for the liberation of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, but the sides are in deadlock over the release of several high-profile inmates.

Alliot-Marie did not refer to the issue on Friday, but instead made a short speech to reporters saying France remained committed to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"France cares for Gaza. France will not abandon Gaza," she said, adding: "I stress to you France`s determination to achieve a dual goal -- establishing a Palestinian state and guaranteeing the security of Israel."

Speaking in French, she also urged Israel to end its partial blockade of Gaza, saying it fed the violence and generated poverty. Israel has said it will not remove restrictions until Shalit is released.

US -led peace talks between West Bank Palestinian leaders and Israel are at a standstill, with the Palestinians refusing to return to negotiations until Israel halts settlement building on occupied territory. Hamas has not recognized Israel and is not a part of the peace process.

Bureau Report