Jerusalem: Israel will not lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip unless the Islamist Hamas movement allows the Red Cross to visit an Israeli soldier captured in 2006, its foreign minister said on Thursday.
"We must say clearly that the minimal condition for lifting the blockade is for the Red Cross to be allowed to regularly visit Gilad Shalit," Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement, referring to the 23-year-old conscript.
"As long as this condition is not fulfilled, there is no reason to change the situation," he added. Hamas swiftly rejected the remarks, calling Israel`s linking of Shalit`s fate to the blockade "an attempt to mislead and cover up international efforts to break the siege”.
The Islamist movement has said it will only release Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, including several political leaders and top militants responsible for scores of deadly attacks.
Israel has faced a surge of international criticism over the blockade -- which keeps out all but basic goods – in the wake of its deadly seizure of an activist aid flotilla on May 31.
It first imposed the closures when Shalit was captured by Hamas and other militants in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006 and tightened the sanctions when the Islamist group seized power in Gaza a year later.
Israel says the closures are necessary to contain Hamas -- which is pledged to its destruction -- and pressure it to release Shalit, while critics of the closures say they amount to "collective punishment”.
The closures have severely hindered rebuilding efforts following Israel`s devastating December 2008 war on Gaza, which severely damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in the impoverished territory.
Most consumer goods are brought in through smuggling tunnels from Egypt, but construction materials are beyond the means of most of Gaza`s 1.5 million residents, 80 percent of whom rely on foreign aid.