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Palestinian traders in the Gaza Strip have begun ordering clothing and shoes, traders said on Wednesday, after an easing in an Israeli embargo helped clear stocks that had been held up in transit, sometimes for years.

Since Israel let private merchants import clothes and footwear starting April 4, 97 truckloads have entered the enclave, at a permitted rate of up to 10 container trucks a day, the Palestinian trade promotion body PalTrade said.

Some 650 private containers are still stuck in transit, it estimated.

Hassan Taha said he and other traders had started ordering new stock, mostly in Turkey, and hoped the reopening of import routes from Israel would herald a return to faster and cheaper supplies than those now imported to Egypt and then smuggled through tunnels into the southern Gaza Strip.

PalTrade official Mohammed Skaik in Gaza said most of the private cargoes of clothing and shoes had been stuck at Israel's Ashdod port for three years since Israel tightened restrictions after Hamas Islamists seized control in Gaza.

When the first such containers were allowed into Gaza this month, traders found some goods had been damaged in storage.

Israeli military officials said on April 4 that only foreign aid groups had been allowed to import footwear and clothes into Gaza in the previous three years. On Wednesday, officials repeated that assertion.

However, data provided by PalTrade indicated that private traders did import 189 truckloads between July and October 2008, during a truce between Israel and Hamas.

PalTrade estimated that some 350 containers a month of clothing and footwear were being imported privately for Gaza's 1.5 million people before the embargo came into force.

Israeli officials said they were hoping to help Gaza's private commercial sector with the easing of the embargo. Egypt, pressed by Israel, is building a barrier along its 10-km Gaza border which it says will cut smuggling routes.

Israel says Hamas is using tunnels to bring in weaponry. It has rejected calls from international powers to ease the embargo on imports of other products, notably cement and steel, which Palestinians say they need to repair damage caused during Israel's three-week offensive into Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.