Israel moves to ease four-year siege on Gaza

United Nations trucks carry supplies into Rafah town after crossing the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip on June 16

Israel approved on Thursday a plan to ease its blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip after weeks of international pressure, but provided few details on what new goods would be allowed in.

The security cabinet's decision was a response to mounting calls to ease the four-year blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory following a deadly May 31 raid on a flotilla of aid ships.

Under the plan, Israel would "liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza (and) expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision," a brief government statement said.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would maintain its naval blockade and inspect all goods entering by land.

"The intention is to ensure that more goods can enter, but always after an Israeli check, which will ensure that there is no weaponry, no arms and no materials which could be used for warfare," he said in a statement.

Hamas swiftly rejected the move, which senior leader Ismail Radwan dismissed as an attempt to "relieve the pressure" on Israel after the flotilla incident.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority also rejected the move, with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat calling it a "public relations ploy."

"President Mahmud Abbas demands the complete lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip," he told AFP. "He believes there are no partial solutions."

The plan is reportedly based on understandings reached by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair that call for switching from a list of allowed items to a list of banned goods.

It would also allow the entry of more construction materials for UN projects to rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed during a devastating 22-day war Israel launched on Gaza in December 2008 to halt rocket attacks.

Blair called the decision an "important step" and said in the coming days he would help thrash out the details on behalf of the Quartet, which consists of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

The United States and the United Nations also welcomed the move.

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

UN chief Ban Ki-moon was "encouraged" by the decision but wanted a fundamental change in the Jewish state's posture, his spokesman said.

Currently thousands of products -- some as banal as toilet paper and ginger -- are listed by Israel as constituting a "security" risk and prevented from reaching the territory's 1.5 million residents.

The list also includes construction materials, such as metal pipes and cement, which Israel fears could be used for building rockets and constructing underground bunkers and tunnels.

Raed Fatuh, a Palestinian official who coordinates shipments, said he had been told Israel would allow in kitchen and office supplies, toys, mattresses and towels starting on Tuesday.

Israeli authorities had already expanded the list of permitted goods in recent weeks, allowing in snack foods, condiments and other household items.

Until now most such goods have been brought into Gaza through smuggling tunnels beneath the border with Egypt and sold at inflated prices, while Gaza's own private sector and factories have almost completely shut down.

An Israeli group that has closely tracked the closures said it was unclear whether the new plan would allow the kind of regular commerce needed to revive the economy in Gaza, where 80 percent of residents rely on foreign aid.

"I am definitely underwhelmed. Our concern is that Gaza residents have a right not just to consume but to produce and to travel," Sari Bashi, the director of the Gisha Centre for Legal Aid, told AFP.

"We don't need cosmetic changes, we need to allow the free passage of goods and persons into and out of Gaza, subject only to reasonable security checks."

The border closures came under renewed criticism after Israel's deadly commando raid on ships trying to run the blockade, in which nine Turkish activists were shot dead.

Israel has argued the closures -- imposed when one of its soldiers was seized by Gaza militants in a deadly June 2006 raid and tightened a year later when Hamas took over -- are needed to contain the Islamist movement.

In the cabinet decision, Israel said it "expects the international community to work toward the immediate release of Gilad Shalit," now 23, who is believed to be held by Hamas at a secret location in Gaza.

source AFP

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