Israel sets out changes to Gaza blockade curbs

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (20 June 2010) PM Netanyahu said the list of banned items would be published quickly

Israel has given details of its plan to ease the blockade of Gaza, with all civilian goods now expected to be let into the territory.

Israel will allow items into Gaza unless they feature on a new list which specifies banned goods.

The move will let in humanitarian aid, food and building supplies.

Israel tightened the Gaza blockade in 2007, but has faced heavy criticism since the recent killing of nine people on an aid flotilla heading to Gaza.

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a long list of previously banned items, which included some food, domestic equipment and building materials would be replaced by a shorter, specific list of "weapons and war materiel".

Analysis

The US said today that it thinks Israel's new policy should improve life for the people of Gaza. Washington was among many of the country's allies making clear it was time for change - that a flawed policy must be significantly modified, if not abandoned altogether.

No Israeli leader likes to back down or admit defeat in the face of international pressure. Last week Benjamin Netanyahu said in a brief statement that the flow of civilian goods into Gaza was being "liberalised". It wasn't enough for some. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank said that the proposals were cosmetic and that the embargo must be lifted altogether.

Today's, more detailed, plans won't placate those who call for the totally free movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. Nonetheless, by abandoning the list of goods which are allowed in - to be replaced by a more specific list of proscribed items - Israel will gain the approval of many who saw it's Gaza policy as counter-productive and amounting to collective punishment.

"From now on, there is a green light approval for all goods to enter Gaza except for military items and materials that can strengthen Hamas's military machine," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told the AFP news agency.

In Washington, a White House spokesman said the Israeli move "should improve life for the people of Gaza", and urged all parties to avoid "unnecessary confrontation" going forward.

Security maintained

The changes to the terms of the blockade had been proposed by Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair.

Speaking after the deal was announced, Mr Blair said Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, could become part of a peace process by releasing captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and renouncing violence.

But he insisted that his main concern was about quality of life in the territory.

"My concern is if you improve the lives of people in Gaza... I think you have got a far better of chance of creating peace," he told the BBC.

In its statement, Israel pledged to expand operations at land crossings into Gaza, increasing the capacity for inspecting and transferring goods into the territory.

Items classified as "dual-use" (suitable for civilian or military use) would be reassessed and goods destined for projects such as UN-backed housebuilding would be assured of entry, an Israeli government statement said.

Tony Blair hopes easing restrictions will make a "big difference"

There was also a promise to "streamline" the entry and exit of people for humanitarian and medical reasons. Gazans have limited access to medical facilities and seriously ill Palestinians often require urgent medical attention inside Israel.

Israel said it would maintain its naval blockade of Gaza. Mr Blair added that all goods destined for Gaza and sent by sea would be diverted via the Israeli port of Ashdod.

But Israel also insisted that it would maintain its current "security regime" for Gaza, and said its troops would continue to work to stop the smuggling of weapons into and out of the territory.

The decision to ease the blockade was made last week after two days of discussion by the country's security cabinet.

There was no immediate reaction from Palestinians to Israel's decision, but the plan was dismissed by Palestinian groups last week as a "pointless gesture".

They called for the blockade to be lifted completely.

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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