Israel eases blockade by letting in extra food items

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The Independent Online

Israel has eased its regime for food imports to Gaza, allowing foods like a range of herbs, biscuits, jam, potato crisps, packaged hummus and canned fruits which had been banned from entering the territory from Israel for three years.

But the relaxation – which also allows in razors – fell far short of the much wider lifting of the economic blockade which has been increasingly urged by the international community since last week's lethal naval commando raid on a pro-Palestinian aid flotilla.

The British Government among others has been urging Israel to consider a substantially new approach to policy, which would spur post-war reconstruction and revive Gaza's private sector economy, paralysed when Israel imposes its blockade after Hamas's seizure of full control in the Strip in June 2007.

The Israeli human rights agency Gisha said yesterday that it was "pleased to learn that coriander no longer presents a threat to Israeli security" but added that Israel continued to prevent the transfer of "purely civilian goods" like fabrics, fishing rods, food wrappers, and raw materials for manufacturing including industrial margarine and glucose.

These were being barred "as part of what Israel calls 'economic warfare'" and so "denies 1.5 million human beings the right to engage in productive, dignified work."

The foodstuffs relaxation came to light ahead of a visit by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, to the White House. After the meeting Barack Obama, the US President, said the blockade of Gaza was "unsustainable" and a better approach was needed.

A British paper sent by the Foreign Secretary William Hague to the International Quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia) is understood to propose the opening of the main Karni cargo crossing; an easing of the naval blockade under which officially sanctioned ships, subject to strict prior checking at an Israeli port, could be used for exports and imports in Gaza; and the substitute of a "white list" of permitted goods for a "black list" of banned ones.

Tony Blair, the Quartet's envoy, has already held two meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, within a week to urge an easing of the blockade. Some other Western diplomats have suggested to Israel that it would be easier to relax pressure for a full-scale international enquiry into last week's commando raid if Israel were more amenable to lifting the embargo.

A senior Israeli official said yesterday he was "sceptical" about any relaxation of the maritime embargo but that discussions were ongoing about importing more civilian goods, which did not allow Hamas to build up its military infrastructure.

Israel contests an assertion by Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, that recent limited and strictly controlled imports of materials for international infrastructure and medical projects are a "drop in the bucket".