Israel's easing of Gaza blockade doesn't address banking, travel rules

Israel's announcement yesterday of an easing of the Gaza blockade on civilians meets international demands. But the UN and other groups are waiting to see how much actually changes on the ground.

By , Correspondent

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    Palestinians ride boats in preparation for the arrival of Lebanon-Gaza flotilla at Gaza Seaport June 21. On Sunday Israel said it was easing a land blockade on the Gaza Strip to allow thousands of types of civilian goods into Gaza, including necessary building materials.
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Israel's decision to ease the impact of a three-year blockade on Gaza appears to have relieved diplomatic pressure on the Jewish state following the fatal intercept of a protest flotilla. But critics warn that the partial measure, which does not include lifting the naval blockade, may not be enough to revive Gaza's economy and relieve the distress of the 1.5 million Palestinians living there.

In the coming days, Israel will begin allowing thousands of types of civilian goods into Gaza, including building materials necessary for reconstructing infrastructure after last year's war with Hamas. Previously, Israel only allowed about 100 kinds of goods into Gaza.

The announcement by the Israeli government won praise from the US and Tony Blair, the envoy of the "Quartet" of international sponsors of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

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Israel hopes the move will deflate a push for an international investigation of the May 31 storming of the Gaza-bound "Freedom Flotilla" that left nine activists dead. International groups such as the United Nations and the European Union may reserve judgment to see how much the flow of goods increases under the new policy.

"This is significant. It is what the international community has been asking for,'' says a Western-based diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. At the same time, "the international community doesn't want to get excited about an announcement. Inevitably there's going to be a degree of caution.''

But former Prime Minister Blair, who negotiated the relaxation with Israel, said in a statement that he "strongly" endorsed the decision and that he expected the measure to "radically'' change the flow of goods into Gaza. "Plainly, there are still issues to be addressed and the test, of course, will not be what is said but what is done,'' he said.

'Not the end of the blockade'

Indeed, critics warned that the decision does not address freeing up Gaza's agricultural exports to Europe, or the reopening of Israel's main commercial crossing into Gaza at Karni. The policy change also doesn't mention whether Israel will allow its banks to reestablish ties with Gazan banks, or whether civilians will be permitted to travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

"It is not the end of the blockade,'' says Sari Bashi, the director of the Israeli nongovernmental group Gisha, which has pressed to lift movement restrictions.

"For the first time since June 2007, Israel is talking about the need to allow economic activity in Gaza. The changes announced last night are far from sufficient to make that happen."

An Israeli government official told the Monitor that exports and banking provisions are still being discussed.

Netanyahu under fire for caving to pressure

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under criticism at home for caving to international pressure and strengthening Hamas, which had called for an end to the blockade.

Mr. Netanyahu cast the decision as an effort to undermine Hamas's "main propaganda claim" that Israel is inflicting a humanitarian crisis on Gaza, thus freeing Israel to sharpen the blockade's focus on Israel's main concern: Iranian weapons shipments reaching Hamas by sea.

Proponents of easing the siege said that Netanyahu, who had privately considered easing the blockade before the flotilla episode, forfeited diplomatic benefits by not deciding on the shift sooner.

"Some of the benefits are being overshadowed. He looks like he folded under pressure, and some of the ramifications are not positive. This is a victory for Hamas and Turkey, and it will weaken [the US-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank]," says Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of Bitterlemons.org, an online Israeli-Palestinian opinion forum. "Hamas and Turkey can legitimately say that this government only understands force.''

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