Israel expected to ease Gaza blockade

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is likely to significantly ease the land blockade of Gaza in coming days in an effort to blunt the international outcry over its deadly raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, officials said Wednesday.

Israel has been scrambling to find ways to ease the embargo and its own growing international isolation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened senior ministers and security officials to discuss changes but they failed to reach a decision. They are now expected to vote Thursday, said a meeting participant speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were closed.

Officials said Israel is expected to greatly ease what gets into Gaza through land crossings. However, the naval blockade that was at the root of the May 31 raid will remain intact because Israel wants to ensure weapons can’t be shipped into Gaza. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the policy has not been approved.

For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed into Gaza for the past three years. Items including metal, glass and cement are barred because Israel fears militants could use those to build weapons or fortifications. But these goods are badly needed to rebuild homes and businesses after Israel’s brief war with Gaza last year.

Israel will now come up with a shorter list of restricted goods to allow in some materials desperately needed by civilians, the officials said.

Under the new guidelines, items such as cement and steel will be allowed in to an undetermined extent in coordination with the United Nations, but won’t be freely available to private citizens, the officials said. Restrictions on things like school supplies, books, computers and toys are expected to be lifted.

Such an easing would bring some relief to Gaza. But it was not clear whether there would be any change on some of the most damaging aspects of the blockade — bans on exports and raw materials used in industrial production.

“It would be nice for Gaza residents to be able to receive previously banned items such as paper, toys and computers,” said Sari Bashi, an Israeli activist whose Gisha group has been fighting to open Gaza’s borders. “But Gaza residents need to be able to receive raw materials in order to engage in productive, dignified work.”

Israel’s Haaretz daily reported Wednesday that international Mideast envoy Tony Blair had worked out the outlines of a deal with Netanyahu. It said it would include an Israeli agreement to consider stationing European monitors at border crossings to inspect incoming goods.

In an interview with the paper, Blair hailed the expected vote by Israel.

“It will allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there,” Blair was quoted as saying. “The policy in Gaza should be to isolate the extremists but to help the people.”

Amid the heavy international criticism that followed the Israeli naval raid, Egypt opened its land border crossing with Gaza — the main gateway for some residents to enter and exit the crowded territory. Egyptian officials said about 10,000 people have crossed the border in the past two weeks, though traffic remains restricted to people with special travel permits, such as students and people with foreign passports.

Israel, with Egypt’s cooperation, has blockaded Gaza by land and sea ever since Hamas militants seized control in 2007. The measure was intended to keep out weapons, turn Gazans against their militant Hamas rulers and pressure Hamas to free a captive Israeli soldier.

It did not achieve those aims, however, and both weapons and goods sold at black market prices continued to flow into the territory through a large network of smuggling tunnels built under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The closure has shuttered hundreds of factories, put tens of thousands of people out of work and brought the territory’s fragile economy to a standstill, hurting mainly ordinary Gazans.

But it did not provoke an international outcry until Israeli commandos killed nine Turks two weeks ago in a raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that sought to draw attention to the blockade’s effects. Israel has said the soldiers acted in self-defense after they were attacked by a mob. Flotilla activists say the soldiers opened fire first for no reason.

On Sunday the Israeli commission appointed to investigate the flotilla attack had its first meeting. A government statement said the meeting was technical in nature. Two international observers will join the deliberations.

The blockade has prevented Gaza from repairing most of the damage caused by Israel’s military offensive — launched in December 2008 to halt years of Hamas rocket attacks. The war continues to come under heavy criticism for causing heavy destruction and hundreds of civilian deaths.

Israeli security officials said Wednesday a soldier faces possible criminal charges in the shooting deaths of two Palestinian women during the war. An indictment would be the first involving civilian deaths in the offensive that killed about 1,400 Gazans.

At issue were the fatal shootings of a 64-year-old woman and her 37-year-old daughter on Jan. 4, 2009. The Israeli human rights group B’tselem, which investigated the case, cited witnesses as saying that at the time the two were among about 30 civilians trying to flee the area of fighting and waving white flags.