Sacks of wheat from humanitarian groups, in Gaza.
Sacks of wheat from humanitarian groups, in Gaza. Israel’s blockade has been voided of content by Egypt’s opening of the Rafah crossing. Photo by Reuters
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Reuters
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton. Photo by Reuters

The European Union urged Israel on Monday to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, and called for "credible international participation" in an investigation of the Israel Navy's deadly raid of an aid flotilla bound for the coastal territory earlier this month.

The EU added that it regretted the loss of nine Turkish lives aboard the aid convoy on May 31 and condemned the use of violence during the clashes.

"The Council believes that an immediate, full and impartial inquiry into these events and the circumstances surrounding them is essential," the European Foreign Affairs council said in a statement, hours after Israel revealed the members of its panel charged with probing the affair. "To command the confidence of the international community this should include credible international participation."

In its statement, the EU issued its expected call on Israel to lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip, declaring: "The situation in Gaza remains unsustainable. The continued policy of closure is unacceptable and politically counterproductive. The EU calls for an urgent and fundamental change of policy leading to a durable solution to the situation in Gaza."

"In line with UNSC Resolution 1860, the EU reiterates its call for an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza including goods from the West Bank."

The council added in its statement that such a solution must address "Israel's legitimate security concerns including a complete stop to all violence and arms smuggling into Gaza."

It declared that it "deplored continuing acts of rocket fire [from Gaza]" and called on "all those responsible [to] take immediate and concrete steps to cease and prevent such violence."

The Council also called on the captors of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a 2006 cross-border raid from Gaza '"to release him without delay", to grant Red Cross representatives access to him and to "end its interference with the operations of NGOs and UN agencies in Gaza."

EU reaches deal on extra Iran sanctions

The council also agreed at its meeting that European Union leaders will push ahead with plans for tighter sanctions against Iran on Thursday, including measures to stem investment in the oil and gas sector and Tehran's refining capability.

European Union foreign ministers, who are responsible for agreeing an EU-wide position ahead of an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, signed off on a statement on Monday that goes substantially beyond the extra sanctions the United Nations agreed to impose on Iran last week, a draft shows.

The foreign ministers said the extra EU sanctions, which could be imposed from next month, should focus on trade, including dual-use items, banking and insurance and Iran's transport sector, including shipping and air cargo.

But the measures will also target "key sectors of the gas and oil industry with prohibition of new investment, technical assistance and transfers of technologies, equipment and services, in particular related to refining, liquefaction and
Liquefied Natural Gas", documents obtained by Reuters show.

The measures, which go beyond what some diplomats had expected, are likely to put strong financial pressure on Iran, which is the world's fifth largest crude oil exporter.

Sweden and Cyprus were believed to be opposed to any EU measures that go beyond the sanctions agreed at the United Nations, and Germany was said to have concerns about targeting Iran's oil and gas sector, where it has large investments.

The European Union's move is designed to put further pressure on Iran to return to negotiations over its uranium enrichment program, which the United States and other Western powers believe is designed to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran denies this and says its plans are peaceful.

The EU steps coincide with efforts by the U.S. Congress to draw up its own set of additional measures against Iran.

The EU-US measures are also designed to add bite to last week's UN sanctions package, parts of which were watered down by Russian and Chinese opposition. Their political impact was also undermined by Turkish and Brazilian votes against it.