Israel says it will ease blockade of Gaza


FOLLOWING INTENSE international pressure, Israel has announced it will ease its economic blockade on Gaza, allowing more goods to enter the strip.

The decision followed two days of deliberations by the security cabinet. However, no vote was taken and no details have been provided over exactly which goods will now be allowed.

A statement issued after the meeting said Israel would “expand the inflow of controlled materials for civilian projects and maintain the existing security measures in order to prevent the entry of weapons”, adding that the cabinet would meet in the near future to decide on steps to implement this policy. The statement added that Israel expected the international community to work toward the immediate release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants since June 2006.

Israeli officials had justified maintaining the blockade in order to exert pressure on the Hamas leaders in Gaza to release the captured soldier as part of a prisoner swap deal.

Construction materials such as steel and cement will now be allowed into Gaza for specific projects under supervision of international aid groups, but will still not be freely available to private citizens. Restrictions on items such as school supplies, books, computers, kitchen utensils, mattresses and toys are expected to be lifted. It is unclear whether the new regulations will affect some of the most damaging aspects of the blockade, such as the ban on Gaza exports and the prohibition on imports of industrial raw materials.

Israel’s maritime blockade remains in effect as part of its efforts to ensure weapons do not reach Gaza. Travel restrictions on Gaza’s 1.5 million people are likely to remain in place.

The Middle East Quartet (UN, US, EU, Russia) envoy Tony Blair – who had been in contact with Israeli officials ahead of yesterday’s decision – welcomed the Israeli move to liberalise its policy.

“As I have said in the past days, Israel has the clear right to defend itself and protect its security. The best way to do this is to ensure that weapons cannot reach Gaza, whilst allowing into Gaza the items of ordinary daily life, including materials for the construction of homes, infrastructure and services, as the UN have asked, and permitting legitimate business to revive,” Mr Blair said.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the bloc was ready to support Israel’s stated intention to ease the embargo on the Gaza Strip with a mission on the ground.

“I look with great interest at what the Israeli cabinet is saying. This is an in-principle statement . . . obviously the detail is what matters,” Baroness Ashton said in Brussels. She is to meet EU experts in Brussels “to see what we can offer”.

Israel’s transport minister, Yaakov Katz, said last week that Israel was working on a plan to totally disengage from Gaza by closing all the land crossings, leaving only the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt open for people and goods to arrive or leave the strip. He also indicated that Israel would stop supplying water and electricity to Gaza once alternatives via Egypt were in place.

Israel would thus be effectively throwing off all responsibility for the welfare of Gaza. However, following protests from Egypt, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu stressed that no decision had yet been taken to implement Mr Katz’s proposals.