Israel to allow most goods into Gaza

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel dropped its long-standing restrictions on allowing consumer goods into the Gaza Strip on Monday but retained limits on desperately needed construction materials, redefining the rules of its heavily criticized Gaza embargo on the eve of the Israeli prime minister’s trip to the White House.

The new rules, which come in response to an international outcry following a deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting protest flotilla, should bring some relief to Gaza’s 1.5 million people.

Yossi Gal, director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, announced the changes Monday, saying the government had made “a very serious effort” to make a “very clear distinction between the security needs of Israel, that we are committed to keep, and everything else.”

But Palestinians and human rights activists were skeptical because of the remaining restrictions.

The decision ends the use of a narrow and often arbitrary list of foods and consumer goods allowed into Gaza. And in a boost to the moribund Gaza economy, Israel announced that some raw materials would soon be allowed to flow to Gaza’s shuttered factories.

“These changes are significant and, once implemented, should have a dramatic influence on the daily lives of the people of Gaza and on the private sector,” international Mideast envoy Tony Blair said. “Thousands of items that have not been available through legitimate channels for the last three years should now enter as a matter of course.”

But prospects for rebuilding the damage from a punishing Israeli military offensive last year remain uncertain. Materials like steel and cement, which Israel says can be diverted for use by the territory’s ruling Hamas militants, would be allowed to enter only for international aid projects. And Gazans will still remained largely confined to their tiny territory.

Israel and Egypt closed Gaza’s borders after the Islamic Hamas overran the territory three years ago. But the blockade has failed in its goals of weakening Hamas or winning the release of an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas militants since June 2006. President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, has called for the blockade to be significantly eased.

Under its old blockade rules, Israel permitted only a few dozen types of products, including basic food and medicine, into the territory. Now everything will be allowed freely into Gaza, except for items on the list.

The list includes items that could be used to manufacture weapons and explosives, like certain fertilizers and ball bearings — those will be barred except with specific permission. Construction materials like concrete, steel cables and asphalt, which Israel fears could be used by Hamas to build tunnels and fortifications, will be permitted only in coordination with the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank, the United Nations and other international agencies overseeing construction projects.

Israel has previously allowed in only a trickle of construction materials for projects overseen by international aid agencies.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said Israel’s new policy was “worthless.”

“The problem is not to approve new merchandise but to lift the blockade,” Abu Zuhri said.

Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, told a parliamentary committee Monday that a naval blockade on Gaza would remain in place to keep weapons from reaching Hamas, an official who attended the meeting said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the hearing was closed.

Other obstacles also remain.

Col. Moshe Levy, a top Israeli military official for the Gaza region, said Israel would ease its ban on raw materials for Gaza’s devastated manufacturing sector, but also said there were no plans to allow Gaza factories to begin exporting on a large scale. The sanctions on the manufacturing sector have forced hundreds of factories to close and cost tens of thousands of jobs.

Levy also said there were no immediate plans to open Israel’s three additional crossings with Gaza. Israel currently operates one crossing on a daily basis.

Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based economist, estimated that Gaza needs 3 million tons of cement and 600,000 tons of steel just to rebuild the damage.

“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.