Israel has agreed to allow a limited amount of cement and other construction materials into the Gaza Strip, some six months after the end of a devastating war between Hamas and the Israeli army. An economic blockade imposed by Israel has been increasingly tightened since the militant Hamas group took control of the territory in 2007.
For months, the United Nations and various aid agencies have been asking for cement and other materials to be let into Gaza so that reconstruction projects can commence. But Israel said such heavy materials were banned out of fear that they would fall into the hands of Hamas, and would then be used for making missiles or reconstructing tunnels which are used to smuggle goods and weapons into Gaza.
That policy had paralyzed people like Maamon Khozendar, one of Gaza's most successful industrialists, who wanted to help Gazans rebuild their lives after a war that destroyed 2,800 homes and left tens of thousands without homes.
Fruit of visits with Obama's team?
The announcement that Israel would allow the cement to be admitted to Gaza coincided with the visits to Israel by US National Security Adviser James Jones, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and US Mideast envoy George Mitchell.
The transfer of the materials comes as part of a larger plan formulated by the UN envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, who had submitted to Israel a list of 10 UN-sponsored construction projects in Gaza. To try to diminish the likelihood of the materials being used for anything other than humanitarian projects, the cement will be transferred through the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA), which serves Palestinian refugees. Among the construction projects that will receive priority are reconstruction of Gaza's largest flour mill and a sewage treatment plant.
Although the timing of the announcement appeared to be tied to the influx of Obama administration officials this week, an Israeli spokesman said that the move had been in process for some time.
"We've been having a policy review on the situation in Gaza since this government was formed," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The policy has not changed, but want to make sure there's a flow of humanitarian support to the people of Gaza. We're looking at ways we can fine-tune the policy, and here we had three projects which are clearly humanitarian which we can do through UNRWA.
"If this works, we could consider more," Regev says. "There is a concern that Hamas will siphon off cement for its own military purposes, so obviously we'll be watching very closely," he adds.
Netanyahu told US officials during his visit that there would be no change in Israel's overall clampdown on the crossings into Gaza as long as Sgt. Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas for three years, is held captive.