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Israel to ease limits on aid going to Gaza

Policy shift would not lift naval blockade

By Isabel Kershner
New York Times / June 18, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Under intense international pressure after its commandos killed nine activists aboard an aid flotilla trying to breach its blockade of Gaza last month, Israel yesterday announced what it called “adjustments’’ in its policy, promising to ease the entry of civilian goods by land while maintaining its naval blockade.

The announcement, which offered few details, said the Security Cabinet had decided to “liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza’’ and to expand the inflow of construction materials for civilian projects under international supervision.

Until now, Israel has largely blocked construction materials from entering Gaza, arguing that the militant Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory, could use those materials to build bunkers and rockets. The ban severely hampered reconstruction efforts after Israel’s three-week military campaign in Gaza, which began in late December 2008, after years of rocket fire against Israel.

Recently, Israel had started to allow in limited building supplies for projects supervised by the United Nations or foreign governments.

A security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, said yesterday’s decision meant there would no longer be any restrictions on foodstuffs going into Gaza, though not in commercial quantities. He added that there might also be a degree of relaxation for products required by the private sector there.

But the government statement offered no retreat on other aspects of the three-year-old blockade, including restrictions on the passage of people in and out of Gaza, exports, or the importation of raw materials for the enclave’s largely paralyzed industries. And officials insisted yesterday that the naval blockade had to remain in place to prevent the smuggling of weapons and other war materiel.

The European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, said she looked “with great interest’’ at the Israeli announcement, which she called an “in principle statement at this stage.’’ Speaking in Brussels, she said Israel should reverse its system of a list of goods that are allowed into Gaza to a list of what is not allowed, to allow a greater variety of goods, according to a statement from her office.

There have been suggestions of new arrangements at the land crossings into Gaza, possibly with some international involvement and a role for the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, whose power is currently limited to the West Bank.

Israel said it would “decide in the coming days on additional steps’’ to carry out its revised policy.

Although Israeli officials insisted the policy was under review even before the flotilla episode, they said there would be no normal commercial activity in Gaza unless Hamas fundamentally changed. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union, and the United States.

Organizers of the flotilla have vowed to maintain pressure on Israel until it lifts the naval blockade, and they are making plans for a new, multiship flotilla in mid-July.

Israeli sanctions began in 2006, after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections then led a cross-border raid and captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. A strict Israeli embargo has been in place, with Egypt’s help, since Hamas took full control of the territory in 2007. Amid public outrage over the flotilla deaths, Egypt recently opened its own border crossing with Gaza for passenger traffic.

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