By Michael Martin, for the New York Times:

Last week I visited Gaza, the first European Union foreign minister to do so in over a year. My purpose was very much a humanitarian one, to see for myself the impact of a blockade that has now been imposed on the people of Gaza for some two-and-a-half years and to meet with the courageous and dedicated staff of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), including its director of operations, Irishman John Ging. They play an indispensable role in maintaining vital humanitarian services to the people of Gaza.

From my arrival in Gaza, the deprivations and hardships resulting from the blockade were all too evident. Visiting an UNRWA food distribution center, I could see for myself the despair and suffering etched in the faces of those who queued for the most basic rations of rice, milk powder and sunflower oil. Eighty percent of the population of Gaza now lives below the poverty line and UNRWA is encountering increasing levels of abject poverty where people basically do not have enough food, even with their meager food allocations, to live.

The tragedy of Gaza is that it is fast in danger of becoming a tolerated humanitarian crisis, a situation that most right-thinking people recognize as utterly unacceptable in this day and age but which is proving extremely difficult to remedy or ameliorate due to the blockade and the wider ramifications of efforts to try and achieve political progress in the Middle East.

One can imagine how hard it is not to give in to despair and hopelessness in such an environment. However, what was most impressive and heartening during my visit was the resilience and incredible dignity of ordinary people.

In particular, I want to mention two young girls whom I met during a visit to the UNRWA girls’ preparatory school in Rafah. Reem Abu Owida is 10, though her diminutive stature would suggest she was at least two years younger. Dina Ali Awaja is 15.

As a former schoolteacher myself, I was deeply impressed by the eloquence, enthusiasm and positive attitude of these two girls. Their sense of self-worth and their commitment to the values of human rights and respectful dialogue, about which they spoke eloquently and passionately, shone through and confirmed the value of the wonderful work being performed by UNRWA in the education sector.

I was similarly struck by what I heard from a business group at the Karni industrial park. This group of predominantly young businessmen and women graphically described the devastation that has been wrought on the private sector in Gaza, an economy that is now only operating at some 10-15 percent of capacity. Over a thousand companies have gone out of business since the Israeli Army’s Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. Unemployment now runs at over 50 percent.

What I witnessed in Gaza, amidst all the rubble and devastation still so evident from last year’s conflict, was a population traumatized and reduced to poverty by an unjust and completely counterproductive blockade. All that is being achieved through the imposition of the blockade is to enrich Hamas and marginalize even further the voices of moderation.

I view the current conditions prevailing for the ordinary population as inhumane and utterly unacceptable, in terms of accepted international standards of human rights.

These are the clear messages that I will be bringing when I travel to Córdoba next weekend to meet with E.U. High Representative Catherine Ashton and my fellow E.U. foreign ministers. The European Union and the international community simply must do more to increase the pressure for the ending of the blockade and the opening of the border crossings to normal commercial and humanitarian traffic.

I genuinely believe that the medieval siege conditions being imposed on the people of Gaza are unacceptable. I am also all too conscious that somewhere within Gaza, now enduring his fourth year of captivity, is the young Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and I equally repeat my call for his speedy release and return to his family.

The people of Gaza are justifiably proud of their heritage. It is a rich one, as I discovered when I visited the small but impressive archaeological museum recently constructed on the outskirts of Gaza City. Young people such as Reem and Dina deserve the opportunity to have a future in line with their heritage.

I urge all who truly care about peace in the Middle East to do what they can to ensure that all young people like Reem and Dina enjoy what we would all wish for our own children: a decent future.

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