JERUSALEM — Israel announced Thursday that it's partially easing its blockade of the Gaza Strip, in an effort to stem international criticism of its nearly three-year siege of the coastal territory governed by the militant Islamic group Hamas.
"This morning, the government of Israel took decisions to liberalize the system under which civilian goods may enter the Gaza Strip, to expand materials for projects inside Gaza which are under international supervision," said government spokesman Mark Regev.
"But of course we must remain with the security procedures that prevent the import into Gaza of weapons and war materials that strengthen the Hamas military machine."
The State Department said it welcomed "the general principles" of Israel's plan to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, and hoped it will improve conditions for Gazans.
An Israeli cabinet spokesman, quoted anonymously in the Hebrew-language media, said the change involves a shift from using a list of items that are permitted to enter Gaza to a list of items that are banned — therefore expanding the types of goods that Israel allows into Gaza.
Israel also has said it would allow in greater amounts of critically needed construction material so long as they go through international agencies such as the United Nations.
At one time, Israel allowed up to 4,000 different items into Gaza, a number that of late was reduced to some 400.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon "is encouraged that the Israeli government is reviewing its policy towards Gaza, but "continues to seek a fundamental change in policy," said his spokesman Martin Nesirky at a U.N. press briefing.
Officials at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which serves the Gaza Strip, said they hadn't received details of the new Israeli policy.
U.N. spokesman Richard Miron said that officials would be working with Israel "to learn more" about the decision.
"We continue to seek fundamental change in policy . . . so that commercial goods and people are able to flow through functioning open crossings so that reconstruction can take place," he said.
Hamas dismissed the new measures as trivial and Israeli "media propaganda".
"What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade. Goods and people must be free to enter and leave. Gaza especially needs construction material, which must be allowed to come in without restrictions," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
The move to ease the blockade has been partially led by Tony Blair, the envoy of the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers. Blair called the Israeli cabinet decision "an important step toward easing the lives of Palestinians in Gaza."
In the past, Blair has said that Israel was willing to consider opening additional land crossings to Gaza to increase the flow of goods and to allow international monitors to observe the crossings. The Israeli cabinet didn't mention either option in its statement Thursday.
Sari Bashi, a spokeswoman for the Israeli legal organization Gisha, said the cabinet decision was limited and that a number of important goods — such as industrial materials needed to revive Gaza's economy — still wouldn't be allowed into Gaza.
"Even food items that are allowed in are limited to ready-made food items, or consumer items . . . . Israel is tinkering with a policy that has not made sense for the last three years. It has not achieved its goal, and they need to reconsider it. It is the collective punishment of 1.5 million people," said Bashi.
Amnesty International also released a statement saying that the Israeli decision was a small step, but "not enough." None of the groups had seen the new list.
Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza in 2007, when Hamas militants seized control of Gaza by routing Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
According to court documents citing the Israeli Defense Ministry, and obtained by Gisha, Israel imposed the blockade as a form of "economic warfare" to weaken the Hamas regime in Gaza.
Polls conducted in Gaza, however, have found that Hamas has retained its stronghold on the coastal strip even though the economy has come to a near standstill.
International criticism of the Israeli-imposed blockade has swelled since May 31, when Israeli commandos raided a flotilla that was attempting to bust the blockade. Nine people were killed and dozens more were injured, and an investigation is ongoing.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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