Reporting from Jerusalem —
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarked Monday on a fence-mending trip to the U.S., his government released a list of thousands of items that will continue to be banned or restricted from entering the Gaza Strip, including such basics as fertilizer and cement.
Announcement of the new list was intended to demonstrate that Israel was easing its three-year land blockade of the territory that allowed the import of fewer than 200 items, chiefly basic food and humanitarian goods.
That policy drew international scorn after Israeli commandos killed nine activists in a May 31 high-seas raid against a protest flotilla that was delivering aid.
Under the new policy, consumer food products and most household goods are permitted. But Israeli officials would not clarify Monday whether raw commercial materials, such as industrial margarine or other items needed by Gaza's defunct factories, would be allowed in.
Likewise, officials refused to say whether the new policy will permit Gaza businesses to resume exports, a step that is seen as vital to restoring the economy in Gaza, where unemployment runs at 40%.
Critics said the new list of banned and restricted items, which fills several hundred pages, still includes goods and supplies vital to Gaza's economic recovery, including cement, lumber and other building materials.
The import of construction materials, including steel products and iron, will be permitted on a case-by-case basis and only under the supervision of the international community. Fertilizer, which can be used to make explosives, is still banned.
Sari Bashi, head of the Israeli advocacy group Gisha, which opposes the blockade, said the tight monitoring requirements hinder reconstruction in the seaside territory. In one recent case, Gisha said, a U.N. group was required to provide photographic evidence that light switches had been installed as promised.
"At that rate, it will take 30 years to rebuild Gaza," Bashi said.
Israeli officials defended the restrictions as necessary to ensure that Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, does not divert construction materials to build bunkers or rockets that could be fired at Israel.
"We must not forget that in Gaza there is a terrorist regime," said Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, who coordinates Israel's activities in Gaza. He said Israel planned to let the number of internationally supervised rebuilding projects increase from nine to 45 in the coming months.
The release of the list was part of an effort by Netanyahu to smooth the way for his much-anticipated White House visit with President Obama on Tuesday.
Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, on Monday held a rare face-to-face meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to discuss resuming direct peace talks. Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table with Israel, but they agreed two months ago to U.S.-brokered "proximity" talks.
A resumption of direct peace talks and an easing of the Gaza blockade have been high priorities for Obama.
At his meeting with Netanyahu, Obama is also expected to pressure him to extend Israel's 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank, a policy that is set to expire in September.
Under one proposal, Israel would extend the construction moratorium in return for Palestinian agreement to resume direct peace talks.
But Netanyahu is facing strong political pressure at home from settler groups and right-wing politicians to resist U.S. pressure. On Monday, one settler group ran large newspaper ads reminding Netanyahu that he was elected partly on a pledge to expand Jewish construction in the West Bank. "A promise is a promise," the ad read.
"There are many issues converging toward September," said Edward Rettig, acting director of the Israel chapter of the American Jewish Committee, an interreligious advocacy group, noting that Palestinians said they would evaluate the progress of proximity talks that same month. "Netanyahu has a real dilemma."
Several Israeli analysts predicted that Netanyahu and Obama would make a secret deal under which Israel would not publicly agree to extend the freeze, but would ensure privately that construction in the West Bank would be limited and include only Jewish settlements that are expected to remain part of Israel under a peace deal.
Separately, Turkey's foreign minister told a Turkish newspaper that Israel must make amends for the flotilla raid, which killed nine Turkish citizens.
"They will either apologize or acknowledge an international-impartial inquiry and its conclusion," Ahmet Davutoglu told the Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review in an article published Monday. "Otherwise, our diplomatic ties will be cut off."
Netanyahu said Friday that Israel had no plan to apologize or pay compensation to victims of the attack.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.