With Obama meeting Tuesday, Israel eases Gaza blockade

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 5, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Israel on Monday announced a major change in the way it will manage the country's controversial blockade of the Gaza Strip, a move Israeli officials hope will ease tensions with the Obama administration on the eve of a visit to Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israelis will no longer block merchandise from entry to Gaza through a limited list of permitted items that often changed. Instead, the Israelis published a list of prohibited items; everything else is permitted.

That should lead to an increase in consumer goods available to Gaza's 1.5 million residents. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is the Mideast envoy for the so-called quartet of nations monitoring peace efforts, called the change "significant."

"Once implemented, these changes should have a dramatic influence on the daily lives of the people of Gaza and on the private sector. Thousands of items that have not been available through legitimate channels for the last three years should now enter as a matter of course," Blair said.

There was no immediate comment from the White House.

Israel has been under harsh international pressure to ease the blockade, which it imposed in 2007 after the radical group Hamas seized control of Gaza. That pressure increased in May, when Israeli commandos killed nine civilians aboard a Turkish vessel that was trying to run Israel's naval blockade.

In the wake of that incident, President Barack Obama called for Israel to ease the blockade, which previously permitted the import of about 100 items, including some medicines and basic foods, but effectively banned many others by not listing them, including every day items such as instant coffee and chocolate.

Netanyahu has said that one of the primary goals of his visit to Washington — he'll meet with Obama on Tuesday — is to outline what efforts Israel's has made to ease the blockade as well as what steps the country has taken to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians. Officials in Netanyahu's government said that they expect Obama to be "pleased" with the progress.

"I expect that this visit to the White House will be good — that the US will see the positive steps we have taken and be pleased by them," said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

Israeli officials said Gazans should be able to see the changes in the blockade soon.

"Gaza will now receive a greater variety of goods, and in greater quantity," said Eli Shaked, head of Kerem Shalom, Israel's main border crossing with Gaza.

In recent weeks, Israel has allowed the number of trucks entering Gaza to grow from 100 per day to more than 150, he said. The goal is to have 250 trucks entering Gaza with goods within a few weeks, he said.

The new list, however, still prohibits much of what Gazans say they need most — construction materials to rebuild the territory still scarred by a three-week Israeli offensive 18 months ago that was aimed at stopping Hamas-sanctioned rocket attacks on the Israeli towns.

Among the prohibited items announced Monday were insulation, many types of cement, steel cables of any thickness and construction forms. Also prohibited were fertilizers and all manner of seacraft, from boats to JetSkis.

Humanitarian organizations serving Gaza said that even with increased truck traffic and the new entry regime, the blockade would remain crippling.

"Even if Israel fulfills its promise to expand capacity at Kerem Shalom we will still be meeting only 70 percent of the ordinary needs of Gaza for import. That doesn't take into account the massive need for tens of thousands of truckloads of construction materials to rebuild Gaza and accommodate natural growth," said Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli legal advocacy group Gisha.

She pointed out that while Israel had lifted restrictions on consumer goods, it maintained a ban on many construction materials and goods that could be used for industrial purposes. In order for Gazans to develop an independent economy they needed both, she said, as well as a lifting of the ban on goods to be exported.

"If the US approves what's currently being offered on the table — more ketchup and margarine — then we are not fulfilling what the international community is demanding, which is the ability for people in Gaza to engage in normal economic activity," said Bashi.

Col. Moshe Levy, a senior Israeli Defense Forces official who handles the Gaza area, said that while Israel would ease its ban on raw materials for Gaza's manufacturing sector, there were no plans to allow Gaza factories to begin exporting goods on a large scale.

Israel also will maintain its naval blockade, allowing goods to arrive only by land.

Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based economist, estimated that Gaza needs 3 million tons of cement and 600,000 tons of steel just to rebuild damage from Israel's military offensive and to account for natural population growth.

"To do business, Gaza needs all crossings to be operating fully for two years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just to make up for what happened in the past three years and cater to natural growth," Shaban said.

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