Senior cabinet ministers on Sunday approved steps toward easing Israel's land blockade of the Gaza Strip, days after Jerusalem had issued a non-binding declaration supporting such a move.
"There will be no civilian closure of Gaza but there will be a security closure," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the meeting. "That security closure will be tightened from now on."
He added: "We have deprived Hamas of the ability to blame Israel for hurting the civilian population [of Gaza] and our friends around the world are getting behind our decision and giving international legitimacy to the security blockade on Hamas."
Sources inside the prime minister's office expressed satisfaction with the move. "In the wake of this decision, the world's focus will be on the Qassam rockets Hamas is firing out of Gaza and not the coriander that Israel isn't allowing in," one senior aide told Haaretz.
Another official said the policy reversal would have been the right move, even without Israel's raid on Gaza-bound aid flotilla three weeks ago, which left nine activists dead and stepped up pressure on Israel to lift the siege.
"The new policy will prevent absurdities like blocking shipments of pasta to Gaza and will strengthen Israel's international position in enforcing a security closure. It will also strengthenl Israel's moral standing in its demand to free [captured Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit.
The decision drew praise from the White House and criticism from the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip, who called it "deception" and said that the blockade must be lifted entirely.
The prime minister's office said that Israel would release "as soon as possible" a detailed list of goods that would not be allowed into the Gaza Strip, which would include all weapons.
"Israel seeks to keep out of Gaza weapons and material that Hamas uses to prepare and carry out terror and rocket attacks toward Israel and its civilians," Netanyahu said. "All other goods will be allowed into Gaza."
Israel's new policy will allow an inflow of construction material into the Gaza Strip for projects approved by the Palestinian Authority or under the auspices of international supervision, including schools, health facilities, water treatment and sanitation, the statement said.
Israel also said it would keep the right to ban "dual-use" construction materials that could be used by Hamas to manufacture weapons and to rebuild its military facilities.
The change in policy is also aimed at improving economic activity in the coastal territory, said the PMO. The new policy was also to allow humanitarian aid to be brought into Gaza in a more effective way and to ease movement in and out of the coastal territory, said the PMO.
Israel would consider further easing its siege as the situation on the ground improved, said the PMO. It would also continue to inspect every item brought to the Ashdod Port bound for the Gaza Strip.
The PMO emphasized in its statement that its defense regime along the Gaza border would remain in place and that Israel still sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.
The Prime Minister's Office announced late last week, after two days of extensive deliberations, that the security cabinet had agreed in principle to relax Israel's three-year blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The ministers decided after their marathon talks on Wednesday and Thursday to "liberalize" Israel's policy regarding the entry of goods into the Hamas ruled territory, which was set in place after the Islamist movement violently seized control over the Gaza Strip in 2007.
The aim of the discussions was to approve a plan drafted by Netanyahu in coordination with the United Nations' Middle East envoy Tony Blair.
Over the course of the six-hour meetings last week, ministers voiced their opinions regarding the blockade and the defense establishment presented the plans for the "liberalization" of the blockade. However, upon concluding the discussions, the ministers did not vote on any binding practical draft of the decision.
Prior to the vote on Sunday, the government was bound by a policy regarding the blockade decided by the security cabinet under former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Israel had "every intention to increase the transfer of goods into Gaza even before the cabinet meeting," a senior defense official said last week, indicating a change in the government's policy even before a binding decision.
"We have notified the Palestinians, regardless of the cabinet meeting, that we will allow the entry of food items, house wares, writing implements, mattresses and toys. Beyond that, we have not said a thing," the official said.
Israeli decision yields calls to lift blockade entirely
Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi said Sunday that the security cabinet's decision to ease the blockade was not enough, calling on the government to lift its siege entirely.
He added that Israel's decision, in the wake of criticism over its raid of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, proved that the government understands "only international pressure",
Hamas minister Ziad al-Zaza characterized Israel's decision as "deception", and said that the blockade must be lifted completely to allow Gaza to import all necessary materials, particularly cement, iron, raw materials for industry and agriculture, as well as import and export between Gaza and the world.
Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees, agreed. "We need deeds on the ground, not words," he told The Associated Press. "We have to see the blockade lifted, because the blockade is illegal."
The White House welcomed the decision and called on all parties "to act responsibly in meeting the needs of the people of Gaza".
"Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, while preventing the entry of weapons," the White House said in a statement.
"We will work with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet, and other international partners to ensure these arrangements are implemented as quickly and effectively as possible and to explore additional ways to improve the situation in Gaza, including greater freedom of movement and commerce between Gaza and the West Bank."
The White House added that President Barack Obama would discuss the new policy and further steps during his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on July 6.
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