Israel agrees 'in principle' to ease blockade, says Blair

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The Independent Online

Israel has agreed "in principle" to taking a significant step towards relaxing a three-year blockade of Gaza that has crippled economic life and halted post-war reconstruction, the international Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, said yesterday. Mr Blair said after briefing European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg on his negotiations with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he hoped the blockade would be eased within days.

The meeting came as an Israeli policeman was shot dead and two others were injured while their vehicle was driving in the Hebron area. The attack was the first fatal shooting of Israeli security personnel in the West Bank for over a year. No group had admitted responsibility by last night and no one had been arrested.

Mr Blair has been pressing Israel to switch from a "permitted" list of around 80 different goods allowed into Gaza to a "banned" list which would make it more difficult for it to block imports – including of raw materials needed by the territory's paralysed industrial sector – which did not pose a security threat.

While saying that Israel was justified in prohibiting weapons and "combat material" from entering Gaza, he added: "We must ensure that all other items pertaining to daily life be allowed to enter as a matter of course. This would make a significant difference to the lives of the population of Gaza. After holding intensive talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past few days, I believe that Israel has agreed in principle to move to such a list."

While the EU ministers called for an easing of the "unsustainable" blockade, Oxfam accused them of having "stood back from taking the bold steps necessary to ensure the Gaza blockade is immediately and completely lifted ... What Gazans really need are jobs and the possibility to export – not just short-term aid and consumer products that without jobs, they can't afford to buy."

Amid some European concern about the Israeli inquiry into the lethal commando raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla a fortnight ago, William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, said pressure was needed to ensure that it was "independent, transparent and credible".