Israel cabinet agrees to ease Gaza Strip blockade

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev on the easing of the blockade in Gaza

Israel has announced it will ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip and allow more civilian goods to enter the Palestinian territory.

The move comes amid international pressure on Israel, following its raid on aid ships bound for Gaza last month.

Both the Palestinian Authority and the Islamist group Hamas dismissed Israel's announcement, calling for a full lifting of restrictions.

Israel and Egypt tightened the blockade when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007.

The Israeli decision followed two days of meetings of the country's security cabinet.

The move will see an expansion in the number of products Israel will allow into Gaza via border crossing points, although the naval blockade will remain in place.

Analysis

Jonathan Marcus

The Israeli cabinet's decision to relax some restrictions on goods entering Gaza seems vague and contains little detail. Everything will depend upon how it is implemented.

It certainly falls far short of a full-scale lifting of the blockade demanded by many foreign governments. It also seems to fall short of a fundamental reassessment on the part of Israel itself.

Many Israeli strategic commentators have argued that the economic war against Hamas has essentially failed and that the only purpose of Israeli restrictions should be to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip.

The new Israeli-approved product list reportedly includes all food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels.

An Israeli government statement did not specify any items other than construction materials for civilian projects, which it said would be allowed in under international supervision.

Israel has until now blocked materials like cement and steel, arguing that Hamas could use them to build weapons and fortifications.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement that Israel would: "liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza"; "expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision"; and "continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war material".

It added: "The cabinet will decide in the coming days on additional steps to implement this policy."

It also said that Israel expected the international community to work toward the immediate release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas fighters on the Israel-Gaza border in 2006.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said some of the goods that would now be allowed in were "trivial and secondary", adding: "What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade.

Start Quote

What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade - goods and people must be free to enter and leave”

End Quote Sami Abu Zuhri Hamas spokesman

"Goods and people must be free to enter and leave. Gaza especially needs construction material, which must be allowed to come in without restrictions."

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmoud Abbas also said the blockade should be lifted in its entirety.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the easing of sanctions a "step in the right direction".

International Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who helped work out the deal with Israel, said it was a "good start".

"We need to make sure that people's lives in Gaza do improve," Mr Blair said. "That's the purpose of the change of policy that people like myself have argued for for the past two years."

He also called for the unconditional release of Sergeant Shalit, saying: "That would allow us to make even further progress.

"But I am absolutely determined to secure significant change over this coming period so that people in Gaza, ordinary people in Gaza, many of whom do not support Hamas, many of whom are young children, get the access to the basic necessities of life that they require and daily life and can start to return to normal."

Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator: ''This siege must be totally lifted.''

The Israeli announcement came after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Israel's raid on the aid flotilla had increased the chances of war in the region.

He told the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen that although Syria was working to prevent a war, there was no chance of a peace deal with the current Israeli administration, which he called a "pyromaniac government".

Israel says the blockade - which aims to put pressure on Hamas and secure the release of Sgt Shalit - prevents war material entering Gaza while allowing the entry of humanitarian aid.

It has been widely criticised as "collective punishment" of the 1.4 million residents of Gaza.

Nine Turkish activists died in the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in international waters on 31 May.

It was the ninth attempt since 2008 to break the blockade by sea, but the first that resulted in bloodshed.

KEY ENTRY POINTS INTO GAZA
map of Gaza showing key entry points

• Rafah - under Egyptian control. Since flotilla deaths, opened indefinitely for people only. Has been closed for the vast majority of the time over the last three years. Makeshift tunnels in this area used to smuggle in goods, including weapons

• Erez - under Israeli control. Crossing for pedestrians and cargo. Access restricted to Palestinians under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority and to Egyptians or international aid officials

• Karni - main crossing point for commercial goods

• Sufa - official crossing point for construction materials

• Kerem Shalom - for commercial and humanitarian goods. These last three crossings have been frequently closed by Israeli army since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007

• Opening of seaport and bus routes to West Bank had been agreed in 2005 but plans since shelved

• Airport - bombed by Israel in early years of the 2000 Intifada

• 'Buffer zone' inside Gaza where it borders Israel. Gazan farmers forbidden to enter the zone

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