JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel said on Thursday it was easing a land blockade of the Gaza Strip that drew heightened international criticism after its deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Hamas-run territory.
A 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.
But Israel maintained its sea blockade of the coastal strip and a ban on the private import of building materials, vital to widescale reconstruction after Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 war. Hamas called the Israeli measures “media propaganda”.
An Israeli government statement, issued after a security cabinet meeting, said “it was agreed to liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza (and) expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision”.
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 U.N. 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. But it noted “existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel” would continue, signalling the sea blockade that Israel says is essential to prevent weapons smuggling to Hamas would not be lifted.
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 an aid convoy on May 31.
Israeli leaders said the troops acted in self-defence 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 recognise 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.