Israel to ease Gaza land blockade
Security cabinet votes to 'liberalize' system by which goods enter Hamas-ruled territory, and expand flow of materials for civilian projects under international supervision.
Israel's security cabinet voted Thursday to ease its land blockade of the Gaza Strip, following its deadly raid on a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for the Hamas-ruled territory.
"It was agreed to liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza [and] expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision," the government said in a statement after the meeting.
The new Israeli-approved product list included all food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels, said Raed Fattouh, the Palestinian coordinator of supplies to the enclave.
The decision does not affect Israel's sea blockade of the coastal strip or its ban on the private import of building materials, vital to widescale reconstruction after the December 2008-January 2009 war in the Gaza Strip. Hamas called the Israeli measures "media propaganda".
Israel has said an unrestricted import of cement could lead to Hamas Islamists seizing the material and using it to rebuild military infrastructure. It already allows in limited quantities of construction material for United Nations projects.
The announcement did not specify how procedures for the import of commercial goods would change or list any specific products, saying only that cabinet ministers would decide in the coming days how to implement the new policy.
The government statement noted "existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel" would continue, signaling the sea blockade that Israel says is essential to prevent weapons smuggling to Hamas would not be lifted.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Thursday that the bloc is ready to support Israel's stated intention to ease the embargo on the Gaza Strip with a mission on the ground.
"I look with great interest at what the Israeli cabinet is saying. This is an in-principle statement ... obviously the detail is what matters," Ashton said in Brussels, on the margins of an EU leaders' meeting.
She said she would meet with EU experts in Brussels on Friday "to see what we can offer."
European diplomats had said a plan drawn up in coordination with Middle East envoy Tony Blair called for Israel to move from a policy of banning the entry of many commercial goods, except a few designated items, to accepting all products and prohibiting only those proscribed on a list.
Blair represents the Quartet of international powers -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - seeking Middle East peace. He held talks last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Commenting on the Israeli announcement, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said some of the goods that will now be allowed in were "trivial and secondary".
"What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade. Goods and people must be free to enter and leave. Gaza especially needs contruction material, which must be allowed to come in without restrictions," he said.
Israel faced mounting international calls to ease or lift its Gaza embargo following the killing by Israeli commandos of nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists during the interception at sea of an aid convoy on May 31.
Israeli leaders said the troops acted in self-defense after being swarmed by activists who attacked them, and that the blockade is necessary to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas.
The security cabinet's deliberations began on Wednesday and coincided with another visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Mitchell is mediating indirect talks between Israel and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel imposed the blockade soon after Hamas, which has rejected Western calls to recognize its right to exist, won a Palestinian legislative election in 2006. Restrictions were tightened after Hamas seized power in Gaza the following year.
A network of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt keeps the enclave supplied with a variety of black market commercial goods. Hamas maintains its own tunnels, which Israel says are also used for weapons smuggling.
Humanitarian aid shipments are transferred regularly via border crossings with Israel, but international aid groups say more supplies are needed.
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