Israel approves plan to ease Gaza blockade
JERUSALEM Ã¢â‚¬â€ Israel on Thursday approved a plan to ease its blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip following weeks of international pressure, but provided few details on what new goods would be allowed in.
The security cabinet’s decision was a response to mounting international calls to ease the four-year blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory in the wake of a deadly raid on a fleet of aid ships on May 31.
Under the plan, Israel would “liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza (and) expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision,” the government said in a brief statement.
But it also stressed that Israel would “continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel.”
Hamas swiftly rejected the plan, which senior leader Ismail Radwan dismissed as an attempt to “relieve the pressure” following the flotilla incident.
“We in Hamas reject the Zionist decision, which is an attempt to obscure the international decision to completely lift the siege,” he told AFP.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority also rejected the move, with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat calling it a “public relations ploy.”
“President Mahmud Abbas demands the complete lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip,” he told AFP. “He believes there are no partial solutions.”
The European Union, meanwhile, welcomed the Israeli decision.
“We’re looking with great interest to what the Israeli cabinet has said this morning,” top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton said, adding that she hoped it would allow “many more products” to enter Gaza.
The plan is reportedly based on understandings reached in recent days by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair that call for switching from a list of allowed items to a list of banned goods.
It would also allow the entry of more construction materials for UN projects to rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed during the devastating 22-day Gaza war, launched by Israel in December 2008 to halt rocket attacks.
Currently thousands of products — some as banal as toilet paper and ginger — are listed by Israel as constituting a “security” risk and prevented from reaching Gaza.
The list also includes construction materials, like metal pipes and cement, which Israel fears could be used for building rockets and constructing underground bunkers and tunnels.
On Wednesday, Israel allowed eight trucks loaded with kitchen equipment to enter Gaza for the first time since 2006, following recent decisions to allow in snack foods and other household items that were previously banned.
Blair had earlier this week told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that the plan would “allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there.”
Blair had negotiated on behalf of the Middle East peace Quartet consisting of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
He said the ultimate aim was to eradicate the need for a vast network of smuggling tunnels running under Gaza’s border with Egypt, through which thousands of goods are brought in daily and sold at inflated prices.
Netanyahu has insisted, however, that Israel’s naval blockade remain in place — a measure he says is crucial to prevent Gaza from “turning into an Iranian port” through which arms would flow freely.
The border closures came under renewed criticism following Israel’s deadly raid on an aid flotilla trying to run the blockade, in which nine Turkish activists were shot dead by navy seals.
Israel has argued that the closures — imposed when one of its soldiers was seized by Gaza militants in a deadly June 2006 raid and tightened a year later when Hamas took over — are needed to contain the Islamist movement.
In the cabinet decision Israel said it “expects the international community to work toward the immediate release of Gilad Shalit,” now 23 years old, who is believed to be held by Hamas at a secret location in Gaza.