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Israel says it will ease Gaza land blockade

June 17, 2010

Israel agreed on Thursday to ease its land blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, hoping to quell growing international criticism following a deadly sea raid.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office released few details about the changes in its three-year-old blockade, and it was not clear whether any firm decisions had been made.

The only item singled out in its statement was a plan to allow in desperately needed construction materials for civilian projects, but only under international supervision.

Israel has barely allowed in materials like cement and steel, arguing that Hamas militants could use them to build weapons and fortifications. That policy has prevented Gaza from rebuilding after Israel's fierce war in the territory last year.

There was no mention in the statement of any change in other damaging aspects of the blockade, like bans on exports or allowing in raw materials used in industrial production.

Israel's naval blockade will also remain in force. The statement noted that Israel would "continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel." Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that if the naval closure is lifted, Hamas would turn Gaza into an "Iranian port."

Israel has been scrambling to find ways to ease the blockade since a May 31 raid on a blockade-busting flotilla turned deadly. The deaths of nine Turkish activists on board one of the ships drew international attention to the blockade and provoked much anger against Israel worldwide.

Israeli naval commandos said they were forced to open fire after they were attacked by a violent mob of activists on board the ship. The activists say they acted in self-defense.

Israel, with Egypt's cooperation, imposed the blockade three years ago after the Hamas movement, which killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks, violently wrested control of Gaza. For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed in.

But the blockade failed to achieve its aims of stanching the flow of weapons to Gaza or weakening Hamas. A network of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border became a conduit for both weapons and commercial goods sold at black market prices. Gazans sank deeper into poverty, turning their anger against Israel and not their Hamas rulers.

The partial lifting of the siege did not satisfy Hamas. "We want a real lifting of the siege, not window-dressing," said Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil.

In the West Bank, the rival pro-Western Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas also rejected the Israeli decision. Negotiator Saeb Erekat said the closure should be ended altogether. "The siege is collective punishment and it must be lifted."

Amid the heavy international criticism that followed the Israeli naval raid, Egypt opened its land border crossing with Gaza -- the main gateway for some residents to enter and exit the crowded territory.

But most Gazans remained confined to the territory because Egyptian officials say they have let in only about 10,000 people with special travel permits, such as students and people with foreign passports.

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