Israel Bows to U.S. Pressure, Lifts Food Restrictions on Gaza

Obama administration protested Israel's denial of items such as pasta, cheese to Hamas-ruled territory.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told the United States and the European Union that Israel will lift restrictions on food items, such as pasta and cheese, entering Hamas-ruled Gaza, diplomats said on Monday.

The government of U.S. President Barack Obama had protested at these and other seemingly random Israeli restrictions, which held up deliveries of certain types of noodles, fruit jams and other foodstuffs to 1.5 million Palestinians in the enclave.

In one case, Israel blocked for weeks a World Food Programme shipment of chickpeas, used to make the Palestinian food staple hummus, according to the UN agency.

Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Olmert's office informed Washington and Brussels that all types of food would be allowed into the Gaza Strip.

"The policy of the government is clear. All food is humanitarian and all humanitarian supplies can go through, as is our policy. We have made sure that that is clear," a senior Israeli official said. "We want the process to be streamlined."

But Western diplomats remained cautious, saying it was unclear whether instructions from the outgoing prime minister would be followed by Israeli military officials who run border crossings with the Gaza Strip.

Diplomats said it was also unclear whether restrictions on deliveries of other harmless items, such as toilet paper, soap and toothpaste, would also be lifted.

Since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a 2007 civil war with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction, Israel has tightened its blockade of the coastal enclave in a bid to weaken the Islamist group's hold on power.

In addition to restrictions on what it deems "luxury" goods, such as cigarettes and chocolates, Israel has blocked entry of materials such as cement and steel that could be used for the Gaza Strip's reconstruction after its three-week military offensive in December and January.

Olmert has ruled out fully opening border crossings until Hamas frees Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid in 2006.

Olmert is in his final weeks in office. Rightist Benjamin Netanyahu is forming a new government and has vowed to take a harder line on Hamas than his predecessor.

Israel says it has opened Gaza's border crossings to larger amounts of food and medicine since its offensive, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians, destroyed 5,000 homes and left large swathes of the coastal enclave in ruins.

But U.S. and Western officials complain that Israel frequently changes the list of humanitarian goods allowed into the Gaza Strip, creating major logistical problems for aid groups and donor governments which are unable to plan ahead.