Israel eases Gaza export block prior to US summit

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Israel said yesterday it would allow farmers in Gaza to export their high-quality strawberries and flowers into Israel and on to Europe in what is the first easing of the trade embargo imposed on the Palestinians in June. The move, ahead of the US-brokered peace summit in Annapolic, Maryland, next week, came as right-wing Israeli politicians denounced the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, for approving the transfer of a shipment of 25 Russian-made armoured vehicles and ammunition to the Palestinian security forces in the restive West Bank city of Nablus.

An Israeli official said the gesture was "intended to bolster the Palestinian security forces for the prevention of terror".

The Gaza strawberry and carnation crop – worth an estimated £7m – had been blocked by the total closure of the Karni cargo crossing since the enforced takeover by the Hamas government in June. Israel's agriculture minister, Shalom Simchon, said the defence minister, Ehud Barak, had acquiesced to his request to allow the crops through the Sufa Crossing currently used for vital humanitarian aid.

Palestinian farmers and Israeli exporters had petitioned the Israeli High Court against the ban, which has already resulted in some farmers feeding carnations to animals because they could not be exported.

The announcement came amid tentative signs that Israel may be rethinking its total ban on commercial traffic in and out of Gaza after declaring it a "hostile entity". Whether farmers would be able to import additional plastic sheeting they need to process and protect crops was not clear.

Oxfam warned yesterday there was an increasing risk to public health in Gaza because of Israel's deliberate policy of reducing fuel supplies in response to the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel. The charity said about 225,000 people in Gaza did not receive adequate drinking water supplies because pumps could not operate.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the main right-wing opposition party called on the Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas – the two right-wing parties in Mr Olmert's coalition – to walk out over the transfer of the Russian armoured vehicles.

As his colleagues claimed the equipment would fall into the hands of militants, Mr Netanyahu said: "According to the security services, Olmert is endangering the lives of Israeli civilians."