Israel loosens chokehold on Gaza Strip, Gaza blockade eased slightly

Israel's decision to ease its Gaza Strip blockade could spell the beginning of the end of the chokehold that has hurt ordinary Gazans far more than their militant Hamas rulers.

By , Associated Press

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    Israel's decision to ease its Gaza Strip blockade could spell the beginning of the end of the chokehold that has hurt ordinary Gazans far more than their militant Hamas rulers. In this file photo taken on Jan. 12, 2009, an Israeli worker moves a bag of UN humanitarian aid bound for Gaza, on the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel.

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An Israeli decision Thursday to ease its blockade of Gaza under intense international pressure could spell the beginning of the end of the chokehold that has hurt ordinary Gazans far more than their militant Hamas rulers.

The order to allow in all foods and some desperately needed construction materials brought calls for Israel to go much further and did little to quell the global outcry over the deadly flotilla raid that tried to bust the embargo.

With a naval blockade in place and Israel giving no indication it will lift a ban on Gaza exports, Palestinians dismissed the move as cosmetic.

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Yet the announcement was an unmistakable sign of Israeli leaders' extreme discomfort with the damage the bloody May 31 flotilla raid has done to their country's international standing — and an indication the blockade's days may be numbered.

Israel made its decision after consultations with U.S. and European officials, and a week after President Barack Obama — whose relations with Israel's hard-line government have been rocky — called the embargo unsustainable and urged that it be scaled back dramatically.

Mideast envoy Tony Blair, who helped work out the deal with Israel, called it a "good start." The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said Israel must "make sure that many, many more goods can get in to Gaza" and added that "the detail is what matters."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner welcomed the announcement, saying the Obama administration wants to see "an expansion of the scope and types of goods into Gaza ... while addressing, obviously, Israel's legitimate security needs."

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 three years ago after Hamas violently overran Gaza, has devastated the seaside territory's economy, costing tens of thousands of jobs, shuttering factories and preventing Gazans from rebuilding homes and buildings destroyed in Israel's bruising military offensive against Hamas last year, aimed at stopping daily rocket attacks.

Israel's decision to ease the chokehold also reflected its leaders' tacit acknowledgment that the blockade has failed to achieve any of its goals: weakening Hamas, keeping weapons out of Gaza, and winning the release of a 23-year-old Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, held captive by Hamas-linked militants for four years.

In one of the major changes approved Thursday, Israel will allow in more construction materials to repair the war damage, provided they are used for civilian projects carried out under international supervision, government and military officials said.

Israel has barely allowed in materials such as cement and steel, fearing Hamas militants could use them to build weapons and fortifications.

Israel has said before that it would be willing to allow in cement under international supervision. But it took the direct intervention of U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to get in cement last month for a single U.N. housing project, following years of delay.

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 U.N. 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.

While the Israeli move seemed to buy Israel some time with the international community, it appeared unlikely to significantly change the quality of life in Gaza.

Most food items prohibited by Israel already enter Gaza through smuggling tunnels along the southern border with Egypt — though it's likely they'll be cheaper if they can come in legally.

More critically, an Israeli government statement made no mention of easing bans on exports or the import of raw materials needed for industry.

"This decision proves the imposed siege failed to oust Hamas from power and did not achieve its objectives, but brought devastating damages to the legitimate Palestinian economy," said Yasser Abdel Baki, a 34-year-old food wholesaler in Gaza City.

Added Salama Alawi, a 55-year-old taxi driver in Gaza: "Where is the news here? They can allow many new items to enter, but what about jobs for us?"

There also was no word on how much construction material would be allowed in, or whether Israel, along with Egypt, would ease a border closure that has prevented nearly all of Gaza's 1.5 million people from exiting the area. Egypt has slightly relaxed the restrictions over the past two weeks.

Blair, who represents the Quartet of international Mideast mediators, said efforts were under way to find a way to reopen Gaza's border crossings with European and Palestinian participation. The EU helped monitor Gaza's southern border with Egypt until Hamas took power in 2007.

Perhaps most significantly, Israel signaled that it had no intention of lifting the naval blockade at the center of the recent firestorm over its deadly sea raid.

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.

Thursday's decision came in response to heavy criticism of the blockade since Israel sent naval commandos to intercept a pro-Palestinian flotilla sailing to Gaza in late May.

Naval commandos clashed with activists on board one of the ships, killing nine Turks, and drawing widespread condemnations. Both sides have said they acted in self-defense.

On Thursday, Turkey threatened not to send its ambassador back to Israel unless it receives an apology for the raid. Ankara, which recalled its ambassador immediately after the raid, also wants Israel to agree to an international investigation into the raid and compensate victims, a government official said.

Israel opposes an international investigation, and has appointed its own panel of legal experts. That commission met for the first time on Wednesday.

Organizers of two blockade-busting ships setting sail from Lebanon said their vessels would leave for Gaza early next week. Organizers 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.

A senior Israeli military official said Israel would stop the vessels. He spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.

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Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Ian Deitch in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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