Obama Welcomes Ease of Gaza Blockade, Urges Israel to Expand Goods Inflow

Mideast envoy Blair: Efforts underway to reopen Gaza crossings; EU: Israel must make sure many, many more goods enter territory.

The international community has welcomed Israel's decision to ease its land blockade of the Gaza Strip, a decision made Thursday after weeks of pressure from its allies in the United States and the European Union.

The White House welcomed the announcement on Thursday as a "step in the right direction." U.S. President Barack Obama a few weeks called the three-year embargo unsustainable, and urged Israel to scale it back dramatically.

U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House

The new product list approved by Israel's security cabinet on Thursday includes all food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels.

Israel will also allow in more construction materials to repair damage from the December 2008-January 2009 war in the Gaza Strip, provided they are used for civilian projects carried out under international supervision, government and military officials said.

"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 security cabinet said in a statement after the meeting.

The decision does not affect Israel's sea blockade of the coastal strip or its ban on the private import of building materials. Hamas called the Israeli measures "media propaganda".

A Palestinian man carries a sack of wheat inside a shop in northern Gaza Strip June 8, 2010.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Obama administration was interested in seeing an "expansion of the scope and types of goods into Gaza ... while addressing, obviously, Israel's legitimate security needs."

Tony Blair, the United Nations' envoy to the Middle East who helped work out the deal with Israel, called the move "a good start" and said efforts were under way to find a way to reopen the Gaza Strip's border crossings with European and Palestinian participation.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said Israel must make sure that "many, many more goods can get in to Gaza". Ashton also said 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."

In Gaza, the decision was met with skepticism and anger. "We want a real lifting of the siege, not window-dressing, said Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil.

The blockade, imposed after Hamas seized Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in a 2007 bloody coup Gaza, has devastated the seaside territory's economy.

The extent to which Israel's latest announcement would be implemented on the ground remained unclear. "There have been many words in the past," said United Nations spokesman Chris Gunness. "We need to judge the Israeli authorities by their deeds, not their words."

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under security guidelines, told The Associated Press that Israel would immediately permit all food and household items into Gaza. Israel has previously allowed a narrow and constantly changing list of authorized food items.

A government statement saying Israel will continue security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war material meant the naval embargo will remain in place, said an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was going beyond a government-approved communique.

The decision on Thursday came after heavy criticism of the blockade in the wake of the Israel Navy's deadly raid on pro-Palestinian flotilla sailing to Gaza in late May. Naval commandos clashed with activists on board one of the ships, killing nine Turks. Both sides have said they acted in self-defense.

Organizers of two blockade-busting ships from Lebanon, meanwhile, said their vessels would leave for Gaza early next week. They said the ships would carry cancer medication, and that 50 women from various religious sects, Arab countries, Europe and the U.S. would be on board.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that the Lebanese government would be responsible for all vessels leaving its port, and a senior Israeli military official said Israel would stop the convoys.