Reporting from Jerusalem — Israel said Thursday that it had agreed in principle to ease restrictions on the flow of some goods into the Gaza Strip, but officials said Cabinet members were undecided about how much to loosen the rules, and details were not disclosed.
Facing international pressure to overhaul Israel's policy on Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security Cabinet issued a short statement after two days of meetings. It promised to "liberalize" its policy of tightly restricting the passage of food, household supplies, construction materials and other goods over Israel's borders into the seaside enclave. Generally speaking, only basic humanitarian goods have been permitted.
Some observers said the vaguely worded statement suggested that Netanyahu's coalition was trying to buy time before deciding whether to make minor modifications in the policy or pursue a major overhaul.
"This shows the depths of disagreement on the Gaza policy," one government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There is a huge gap between Cabinet members."
Other Israeli analysts noted that even the statement issued Thursday, which promised a decision on additional steps in coming days, was not subjected to a binding vote by the security Cabinet.
But another government official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because the final policy had not been announced, said divisions were being exaggerated and that a consensus was likely.
The Obama administration has been calling for major changes in the embargo. A senior U.S. official said Washington expected Israel to make more far-reaching changes than suggested by Thursday's announcement.
"This is the first shoe to drop," the official said. "We expect it will be further developed going forward."
U.S. officials have been discussing various ideas with the Israelis, including broader international participation and the entry of goods from the sea, the latter an idea Israel has resisted.
In addition to easing the delivery of what it calls civilian goods, Israel signaled that it would expand its practice, started several months ago, of allowing limited supplies of cement and other construction materials into Gaza as long as the United Nations or international aid groups guarantee that the supplies will be used only for specific development projects.
Israeli officials said they did not contemplate changes in the naval blockade, which led to a May 31 raid on a flotilla of ships trying to break the naval cordon in which nine activists died, or to restrictions on the movement of people in and out of Gaza.
A significant change in the Gaza restrictions would mark an abrupt reversal for Israel, which for three years has defended its policy as essential to ensuring its security. Israeli officials said part of the goal was to isolate Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that won 2006 Palestinian elections and took control of Gaza a year later.
As recently as last week Israeli military officials were warning that many products, including cement, medical supplies and spare parts, could have "dual-use" applications in building weapons or supporting terrorism.
But after rising international criticism over Israel's high-seas raid last month, Netanyahu came under intense pressure to change the policy.
Under border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt, Gaza's economy has been devastated and thousands of families have been unable to rebuild homes destroyed during Israel's 22-day military assault on Gaza 18 months ago.
One revision being considered would permit all goods into Gaza except those specifically banned or restricted. The idea, which has U.S. backing, has been pushed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who serves as the Middle East envoy for the so-called quartet of the United States, Russia, the U.N. and the European Union.
Israel takes an opposite approach, banning everything except those items on a preapproved list.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have declared the embargo "unsustainable" and made clear their unhappiness with the living conditions for Gazans. Clinton has acknowledged that anger over the situation in the enclave has been a major public diplomacy issue for the United States, officials say.
But U.S. officials also say they recognize the Israelis' security concerns and don't want to risk an opening that could allow extremists in Gaza to rearm.
U.S. officials have avoided public criticism of the Netanyahu government since the flotilla attack and have worked behind the scenes to reach agreement on easing the embargo and settling on a commission to investigate the incident.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator, said Obama appeared to have decided that he did not want the embargo issue to interfere with other top goals in the region, beginning with indirect peace talks now underway.