Israel's security cabinet today approved changes to the Gaza blockade that will potentially allow a range of food and building materials in for the first time in three years. But Israel will continue strict security checks at crossings into the Gaza Strip to prevent weapons from reaching militants.
The shift could mark a victory for the pro-Palestinian Gaza aid flotilla that challenged Israel's naval blockade on May 31, sparking violence that left nine Turks dead and a diplomatic uproar for Israel.
An easing of the Gaza siege might spur business activity in the blighted territory of 1.5 million Palestinians, say analysts, giving Hamas an economic and political lifeline after Israel's blockade failed to turn ordinary Gazans against their Islamist government.
But Hamas dismissed the Israeli move as a public relations gambit. The cabinet decision "is nonsense and useless,'' says Ahmed Yousef, the deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government in Gaza. "[Israel] wants to deceive the world and say that it is easing the siege. We are not in need of ketchup or mayonnaise. We need construction and industry raw materials to be let in."
An Israeli statement on the decision was short on details on exactly what will be allowed in. The statement said that the ministers agreed to "liberalize'' rules for entry of goods into Gaza and "expand'' imports of materials for civilian projects under international supervision. The cabinet will meet again "in the coming days" to discuss steps for implementing the changes.
"It’s a clear direction of policy. We have no problem with civilian goods for civilian purposes,'' says an Israeli official who requests anonymity.
The official adds that building materials, such as concrete, would be allowed into Gaza provided they are handled by international groups that have given Israel "assurances" they won't be used for military purposes.
For the last three years, Israel has prevented a range of items – including cilantro, fresh meat, margarine and children's toys – from entering the Gaza Strip. The limited food and medicine items cleared for passage were aimed at bolstering Israeli arguments that Gazans were not threatened with a humanitarian crisis.
Building infrastructure items like concrete were banned for fear it would help Hamas build bunkers. United Nations officials have accused Israel of hampering the rebuilding of the Gaza after last year's war with Hamas.
This past week, Israel announced it would allow more food products – such as soda, cookies, and potato chips – into Gaza. Today's decision would reduce the restrictions further. Earlier, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing to allow some Palestinians to leave Gaza, and allow more goods to be brought in.
Children's toys no longer banned
Raed Fatouh, a Palestinian liaison who coordinates the entry of goods into Gaza, says that Israel allowed 4,000 different items into Gaza before the blockade, and now that number is 150. He says that the Palestinians were informed by Israel that next week more goods would be allowed in. "Israel plans to allow stationary, kitchen tools, towels, beds, mattresses, kids toys, and the entire range of food products," he says.
Shortly after pulling out of Gaza in 2005, Israel began severely restricting exports and import of goods at its land crossings into the territory. The takeover of Gaza by Hamas prompted Israel to shut the crossings almost completely except for basic foods and medicines – an attempt to isolate Hamas and undermine support by laying waste to the economy.
According to the UN, Gaza suffers from 44 percent unemployment. Despite that, the economic pressure is considered a failure even in Israel. The uproar over the May 31 flotilla raid emboldened critics of the blockade among Israel's main allies in the US and Europe.
Palestinian Authority says easing insufficient
A spokesman for the US-backed Palestinian Authority, led by staunch Hamas rival Mahmoud Abbas, called the decision to ease the blockade "insufficient.'' Secular Arab governments, such as the PA, have been accused of quietly supporting the Israeli siege to pressure Hamas. Egypt, which closed its civilian crossing with Gaza, has been accused of collaborating on the closure as well.
"We wish for a total lifting of the siege,'' says Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Are we talking about thousands of items? Most of Gazas supplies come from Israel and Israel should provide for them. This isn't against Hamas, its harming the civilian population of Gaza.''
That sentiment was echoed by Gisha, an Israeli non-profit that has pushed for free movement of goods and people across the border. "We don't need cosmetic changes,'' said a statement from the group. "We need a policy that recognizes the rights of Palestinian residents of Gaza not just to consume but also to produce and to travel.''