Israel eases some restrictions on Gaza

 

Jerusalem

After more than five weeks of calm on its border with Gaza, Israel is allowing more building materials into the territory and considering easing other restrictions as part of an Egypt-brokered cease-fire with Hamas that ended an eight-day conflict in November, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Daily shipments of 20 truckloads of gravel for private construction began Sunday, the first such shipments since Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, seized control of the enclave in 2007.

Previously, building supplies from Israel were allowed in only for Israeli-approved projects carried out by international organizations, such as the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Israel had imposed the restrictions because of concerns the materials could be used by Hamas to build tunnels and bunkers.

The new gravel shipments are limited and not expected to have a significant impact on private construction in Gaza. But a further easing of Israeli curbs could buttress the truce with Hamas by giving the group a stake in preventing the resumption of cross-border rocket fire, which triggered the recent Israeli offensive.

"It took some time, but eventually our government understood that the way to stabilize the situation with the Gaza Strip is by creating an interest in the other party to keep the cease-fire, and you don't do it by siege, but by allowing more prosperity," said Shlomo Brom, director of the program in Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

In tandem with the move by Israel, Egypt on Saturday began allowing building supplies into Gaza for projects funded by Qatar, although that step fell short of demands by Hamas for a permanent opening of the Gaza-Egypt border crossing at Rafah for the movement of goods.

On a visit to Gaza in October, the emir of Qatar pledged $400 million for the construction of housing and a rehabilitation center and to fix major roads.

Palestinian officials and business leaders in Gaza said they have been told by Israeli officials that if the cease-fire continues to hold, Israel will further ease some border restrictions. Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry department that oversees Gaza border crossings, said several steps are under consideration, including allowing more building materials, expanding the volume of goods crossing into Gaza from Israel, permitting more exports from the territory and facilitating infrastructure improvements there.

"As long as quiet is maintained, the easing of restrictions for the population in Gaza will continue," Inbar said. He said the steps this week "followed our discussions with the Egyptians and against the background of the quiet that has been maintained for more than five weeks."

Egypt has been in contact with both Israel and Hamas, following up on the cease-fire agreement reached Nov. 21.

Under that deal, Israel has relaxed the limits it had imposed on Gaza fishermen, doubling the distance they can fish off the coast to six nautical miles. It has also permitted Gaza farmers to work closer to the border fence with Israel, in an area where Israeli troops had enforced a no-go zone to prevent militant attacks.

The quantity of gravel shipments approved by Israel falls far short of Gaza's private-sector building needs, which are met with supplies smuggled in tunnels under the border with Egypt. Israel allows the passage of considerably more building supplies for the internationally funded projects, about 80 to 100 truckloads a day, according to Israeli officials.

Those international projects, however, require a lengthy bureaucratic process of Israeli approval to ensure that the materials are not used by Hamas.

Ali al-Hayek, head of the Gaza Businessmen's Association, said 20 trucks a day for private-sector building "is not enough for anyone," given the scale of construction needed in Gaza, where the recent conflict with Israel brought further destruction.

Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, said that after treating building materials as "radioactive weapons . . . the fact that Israel can overnight remove onerous restrictions on construction materials indicates they should have never been there in the first place."

Israel bars nearly all exports from the Gaza Strip to its main markets in the West Bank and Israel and allows limited shipments abroad. Movement of people out of the enclave into Israel is also largely banned, except for hospital patients requiring treatment and some businessmen.

Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized control of the territory, but it eased restrictions on the entry of goods in 2010 after a deadly Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid flotilla headed for Gaza provoked an international outcry.

---

Islam Abdul-Karim in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

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