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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.

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Though Egypt is allowing returning Gazans to take what they can carry, it doesn't allow the proper import of goods into Gaza. Not far from this official border crossing, smuggling tunnels dot the countryside – both a vital lifeline for many Gazans and the foundation of new fortunes, as well as an important source of tax revenue for Hamas. Egypt is building a new border fence it says will extend up to 100 feet underground to foil the tunnels.

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But while Israel says Gaza's humanitarian travails are exaggerated, UN and other humanitarian aid organizations say living standards have steadily eroded during the blockade, which has been strictly enforced since Hamas won a brief civil war for control of the territory with the rival Fatah party in 2007.

Healthcare

Take healthcare, which Israel's actions today don't address. Israel allows a flow of drugs into the territory, though distribution is often disrupted and temporary shortages occur. But Tony Laurance, head of the World Health Organization's office for the West Bank and Gaza, says that hundreds of pieces of medical equipment have been held up on the Israel side of the border for almost a year, and that's putting lives at risk.

"So far as health services are concerned, what we’re concerned with is the declining quality of care available primarily because of the blockade," he says. Mr. Laurance says many of the "essential tools" of the medical profession are no longer available in Gaza. For instance, Israel bans the import of uninterrupted power supply systems, arguing that their batteries could be used to make bombs. But that means when Gaza's power goes out, as it frequently does, medical equipment stops running, and its shelf-life is reduced by frequent power shortages.

"You’ve got a declining dilapidated infrastructure where nothing of any consequence has been done for the past three years," he says. He points to Gaza's second-largest hospital, where only one of three elevators is working because of a ban on importing spare parts, and where most of the sterilizers for surgical equipment aren't working for the same reason. Though Israel has explained that some of the items on its banned list are because of fear they could be used in weapons, "Very often we aren't given any reason at all."

Border scene

As Gazans arrived at the border carrying suitcases, they were swarmed by local children hoping to load their bags into taxis in exchange for a few cents. Many of the Palestinians looked well fed and well dressed. One woman, surrounded by her four children, carried some of her belongings in a sack that used to contain grain, bearing the words "Palestine Refugees: For Immediate Distribution."

Some said they were headed for Cairo Airport, others to cities throughout Egypt. When asked if he was on his way to the hospital, an elderly wheelchair-bound man with no teeth answered somewhat indignantly, "no"; he was going to visit family in a village fives minutes away.

The scene at the edge of Egypt, surrounded by peach orchards, is mostly silent. An Israeli observation jet occasionally booms overhead, and five times a day the call to prayer echoes from both Egypt and Gaza. It is easy to imagine what a closed border looks like.

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

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