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Israel to allow soda into Gaza, but not rebuilding materials

Israel partially eased its economic blockade of Gaza on Wednesday, allowing cookies, soda, and canned fruit to be legally sold there for the first time in more than a year.

By Max StrasserContributor, Staff writer / June 9, 2010

A Palestinian woman carries a tray outside of the family tent in the northern Gaza Strip Wednesday. Israel today eased the blockade of the Gaza Strip by allowing cookies, soda, canned fruit, and other snack foods to be legally sold here.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

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Rafah, Egypt

Israel joined Egypt today in easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip amid ongoing international anger over its killing of nine Turkish citizens in a raid on a flotilla seeking to bring aid to Gaza earlier this month.

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Israel removed cookies, soda, canned fruit, and other snack foods from the list of goods barred from entry into the impoverished territory, though it maintained its ban on imports of cement and other building materials that Gazans and international aid groups say the territory needs to recover from the pounding it took in Israel's 2008-2009 offensive, which left much of the infrastructure in ruins and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Israeli officials said the easing had nothing to do with the controversial raid on the flotilla, which prompted dozens of governments to call for an end to an economic blockade that has pushed Gazan unemployment above 40 percent. But it follows a similar symbolic easing by Egypt, Israel's partner in the blockade of Gaza and its Islamist Hamas government.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid and Palestinian smugglers on the Egypt Gaza border

Egypt reopened the Rafah crossing with Gaza last week to a select group of individuals, either Palestinians with medical conditions that can't be treated at home or those with enough clout to wrangle a pass to get through.

The view from Rafah now is a lens onto complicated internal politics and economic contradictions in Gaza, where most people live in deep poverty but many are prospering.

An "open" Gaza border may conjure images of thousands of people rushing to escape the densely populated strip where, according to Amnesty International, 80 percent of the population depends on external aid for survival.

But in the stifling midday heat on a recent day, the Rafah crossing was quiet, save an occasional family carrying suitcases into Egypt or a pickup truck laden with household appliances headed for Gaza. Only 200 people have been entering Egypt daily since the border opened, according to press reports.

Tough to get out

This may be due to the difficulty in leaving the Strip. On the Egyptian side, most Gazans said they had waited between five and 10 hours to exit and many said it was their third or fourth attempt since the border opened last week.

"Those with connections [to Hamas] can get out," said a woman who had been trying to leave Gaza for three days. "For those of us without, it's more difficult." She was on her way to Cairo to reunite with family members for the first time in 20 years.

A roughly equal number of people were entering (or re-entering) Gaza, most of them carrying goods into the territory: washing machines, gas stoves, plastic chairs, foam mats, refrigerators, bicycles with training wheels, and flat screen TVs.

Conspicuously absent, however, was any sign of the humanitarian aid that the United Nations and human rights groups have said Gazans desperately need. Orange Ministry of Health ambulances sporadically entered Egypt en route to Cairo hospitals with sick Palestinians. Three Toyota Rav 4s marked with Red Crescent signs exited Egypt.

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