Calling the situation in the Gaza Strip “unsustainable,” President Obama on Wednesday said the Israeli blockade of the area should be curbed to focus only on weapons and separately announced a new $400 million aid package to help the Palestinian people there and in the West Bank.
Mr. Obama made the comments after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office, where the two said they discussed how to allow more goods and services into the region, which has been the target of an airtight blockade by Israel aimed at preventing arms shipments.
The meeting came less than two weeks after a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla that attempted to break the blockade. Nine people died in the incident, which sparked international condemnation of Israel for using excessive force in international waters. The Israeli government said its troops fired only after the activists attacked them.
Mr. Obama said the tragedy underscores the region’s instability and the need for both sides to make sacrifices in pursuit of peace. On the Israeli side, the president repeated earlier calls for the government to halt settlement activity. On the Palestinian side, Mr. Obama said he was frank in telling Mr. Abbas there must be “more progress on both security as well as incitement issues.”
“The situation in Gaza is unsustainable,” he said. “If we can over the next several months try to lift up what are the honest and legitimate concerns of both sides, and if both Palestinians and Israelis can recognize that they have a common interest in moving off of what has been this dead end, then I believe that potentially we can make significant progress before the end of the year.”
Mr. Obama reiterated his support for a Palestinian state, calling it the “only real way to solve this problem.”
Mr. Abbas said his government is committed to peace and pushed back against suggestions it is inciting violence.
“I say in front of you, Mr. President, that we have nothing to do with incitement against Israel, and we’re not doing that. What we care about is to live in coexistence with Israel, in order to bring about the independent Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and stability,” he said.
Mr. Obama faulted the blockade for barring basic supplies from flowing into Gaza, though he acknowledged Israel’s interest in keeping rockets out of the hands of the militant Hamas movement. He said that “there should be ways of focusing narrowly on arms shipments, rather than focusing in a blanket way on stopping everything.”
Mr. Obama said he plans to work on a “new conceptual framework” for the blockade with European leaders, Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
The $400 million in new financial assistance will be used to build schools, houses and develop businesses, Mr. Obama said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to visit the White House earlier this month, but canceled so he could return to deal with the fallout from the flotilla raid.