Israel urged to do more as Gaza blockade is eased

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The Independent Online

Israel announced yesterday it would "liberalise" the flow of goods to Gaza in a statement which stopped short of a pledge to allow in raw materials needed to revive the besieged territory's paralysed manufacturing sector.

The EU and aid agencies welcomed the Cabinet decision, taken after two days of deliberations, as "a step in the right direction" but warned that much more needed to be done to restart Gaza's moribund economy and boost post-war reconstruction. Israel had been under mounting international pressure for a significant relaxation of its three-year-old embargo since its lethal commando raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla earlier this month.

The inner Security Cabinet said it had agreed to expand the shipment of construction materials needed for internationally supervised infrastructure projects. And it said further decisions would be taken in the coming days on "additional steps to implement this policy". Some such projects, requiring strict security guarantees from international organisations like the UN, will be exempted from a general prohibition on materials like cement which Israel says it fears will be used by Hamas to build up its "military machine".

Raed Fattouh, the Palestinian co-ordinator for the shipment of goods from Israel into Gaza, said a newly expanded list of goods would now include food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels. There was no sign however of goods like industrial margarine or glucose which could be used for food processing being allowed in.

There was no mention in yesterday's Cabinet statement of a switch from an "allowed" list of goods to a "banned list" – something which Tony Blair, representing the "Quartet" of the US, EU, UN and Russia, said on Monday in Luxembourg had been agreed "in principle" by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A senior Israeli official said yesterday that the idea of the switch from a "white list" to a "blacklist" was still "on the table." The list would make it more difficult for the Israeli authorities to ban items like raw materials to revive private sector production but which did not pose a threat to Israel's security.

Western diplomats have been pressing Israel to take more concerted action in what could be a relatively short window before a fresh flotilla poses a fresh maritime crisis by setting out from Gaza, on the grounds that it is much easier to condemn the flotillas if the blockade is being relaxed. At least two Lebanese organisations are threatening to send boats to the territory.

The EU's foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton said the European Union had noted the development with "great interest" but hoped "the in-principle statement by the Israeli government can now be followed up very quickly with the detail which we shall look at with interest".

A Foreign Ministry official in Turkey, nine of whose citizens were killed in the commando raid this month, said Ankara wanted to "evaluate" the Israeli move. "However, our attitude on the issue is obvious, we expect that the blockade be lifted altogether," the official added.

While in Gaza one Hamas official condemned the move as "window dressing," the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli decision was "not sufficient". He added: "With this decision, Israel attempts to make it appear that it has eased its four-year blockade.... In reality, the siege of the Gaza Strip, illegally imposed on Palestinians, continues unabated."