Israel is easing its Gaza embargo to allow snack food and beverages into the Palestinian enclave, Palestinian officials said on Wednesday, following an international outcry over Israel's raid on an aid flotilla.

An Israeli government official said the decision, announced hours before U.S. President Barack Obama was to host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, was unrelated to Israel's May 31 takeover of the convoy that challenged its Gaza blockade.

The talks between Obama and Abbas are expected to focus on ways to ease the embargo, which has drawn mounting international criticism since Israeli commandos, who met violent resistance on a Turkish-flagged ship, killed nine pro-Palestinian activists.

The Palestinian officials, based in the West Bank, said that as of next week, Israel will allow a wider variety of food, such as potato crisps, biscuits, canned fruit and packaged humous, as well as soft drinks and juice, into the Gaza Strip.

"They will send the first course. We are waiting for the main course," Palestinian Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh said in Ramallah. "We are waiting for this unjust siege to end."

Israel says its blockade of Gaza is necessary to choke off weapons supplies to Hamas Islamists who run the enclave and are opposed to Abbas's peace efforts with the Jewish state.

The United Nations says the Israeli blockade has caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, an allegation Israel denies.

Raed Fattouh, head of a West Bank-based Palestinian government committee that coordinates entry of goods into the Gaza Strip from Israel, said it was unclear whether Hamas would let the Israeli-made drinks and snack food in.

A Palestinian merchant, who spoke to Reuters in the Gaza Strip on condition of anonymity, said Hamas officials ordered businessmen in the enclave not to import most of the items from Israel. A variety of goods come into the Gaza Strip from
neighbouring Egypt via smuggling tunnels.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas.

WIDER VARIETY

Asked about the new list of Israeli-approved products, the Israeli government official said: "Over the last six months, Israel has increased the volume of goods going into Gaza and their variety. That policy is continuing."

Last week the United States backed a U.N. Security Council statement on the flotilla raid that demanded a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards".

Israel has said it would investigate on its own, but has been consulting with Washington on a format for an inquiry that could include foreign observers.

Commenting on the blockade, an Israeli security source said Israel aimed to remove all restrictions on imported food items for Gaza within a few weeks and noted that jam and several other products were approved recently.

"This has nothing to do with the flotilla," the source said.

Israel's ban on cement imports into the territory, critics say, has limited efforts to rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed or damaged in a three-week war it launched in December 2008 with the stated aim of curbing cross-border rocket fire.

Israeli authorities said that last week, Israel transferred 12,413 tonnes of humanitarian aid through Gaza border crossings.

The shipments included 994,000 litres of fuel for Gaza's power station, 748 tonnes of cooking gas and eight truckloads of medicine and medical equipment, according to an Israeli list.