Israel to ease Gaza blockade

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The Independent Online

Israel will significantly ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip today, officials said, in an effort to blunt widespread international criticism after a deadly Israeli commando raid on a blockade-busting flotilla.

Senior cabinet ministers are meeting to limit restrictions to a short list of goods, such as cement and steel, which Israel says militants could use in their battle against the Jewish state.

But even those goods would be allowed in to an undetermined extent in co-ordination with the United Nations, the officials said.

Israel, with Egypt's co-operation, has blockaded the Palestinian territory by land and sea since Hamas militants seized control of Gaza three years ago. For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed in.

The blockade was designed to keep out weapons, turn Gazans against their militant Hamas rulers and pressure Hamas to free a captive Israeli soldier. It did not achieve those aims, however, and both weapons and goods continued to flow into the territory through a large network of smuggling tunnels built under the Gaza-Egypt border.

But although the blockade deepened the poverty in Gaza and confined 1.5 million people to a tiny patch of land, it did not provoke an international outcry until Israeli commandos killed nine Turks two weeks ago during a raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

The Haaretz newspaper today quoted international envoy Tony Blair hailing the expected vote by the Israeli ministers.

"It will allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there," Mr Blair was quoted as saying. "The policy in Gaza should be to isolate the extremists but to help the people."

Earlier it was announced the United Nations will take to Gaza tons of aid supplies languishing in an Israeli port for two weeks since they were seized in the bloody sea confrontation.

Robert Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the UN Security Council in New York that Israel agreed to release the cargo "on the understanding that it is for the United Nations to determine its appropriate humanitarian use in Gaza".

The military said the aid, taken from a six-ship Gaza-bound flotilla, would fill 70 trucks.

Up to now, the Hamas rulers of Gaza refused to accept the aid as a protest against Israel's three-year blockade of the territory. Hamas had no comment on the arrangement, under which the UN would take charge of seeing that the aid would be used in authorised humanitarian projects.

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