Blair Nixes Gaza Visit in Light of Shin Bet Warning of Attack

Trip would have marked highest-level diplomatic visit to Gaza since Hamas took control a year ago.

Quartet Mideast envoy Tony Blair cancelled a planned Tuesday visit to Gaza at the last minute after the Shin Bet security service personally warned him that it had received intelligence that Palestinian terror organizations were planning to attack him.

The trip would have marked the highest-level diplomatic visit to the territory since Hamas took control a year ago.

Hamas was to have provided security for Blair's trip. Hamas officials said before the visit was cancelled that they viewed Blair's decision to go to the territory as a sign of their group's emergence from Western isolation.

Security sources told Haaretz that Israel had not prohibited the visit, but since this was a sunstantive warning, officials had made certain to immediately pass the information to Blair's aides in order to keep him safe from harm.

Blair's spokesman, Matthew Doyle, said the envoy called off the visit due to a "specific security threat which would have made it irresponsible to proceed, not just for those visiting but also the local community.

"He looks forward to being able to go to Gaza again in the future and will of course in the meantime continue to work to improve the conditions for the people there," Doyle added.

Taher Nunu, a Hamas government spokesman, denied there were any security threats against Blair. "Gaza is still open for all visitors, to break the siege and see the extent of suffering here," he said.

On an Islamist forum popular with Gaza residents, some users slammed Blair's expected visit, but there were no direct threats of violence against him. Those comments were later removed from the Web site.

A key stop on Blair's trip would have been a northern Gaza waste water project being built with international funds. The Mideast envoy had not been expected to meet officials from Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., EU and Israel.

"We are very disappointed," said John Ging, Gaza director of the U.N. agency in charge of aiding Palestinian refugees. Blair, a former British prime minister, is trying to revive the struggling Palestinian economy to lay the groundwork for a future independent Palestinian state.

The Quartet of international powers - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - appointed Blair to the envoy post a year ago with an economic focus to bolster chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal this year.

Blair's decision not to to meet any of Hamas's leaders during the visit, was in line with a U.S.-led boycott of the group over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence after it won elections in 2006, Palestinian and Western officials said.

Blair last visited the Gaza Strip in 1998 when he was Britain's leader.