KEREM SHALOM CROSSING, Israel – Israel is easing its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza to allow in virtually all consumer goods, items from household cleaners to timber that had been barred from import for years.
But because Israel will continue to ban most travel and exports and restrict the import of desperately needed construction materials, the new rules are unlikely to restore the territory’s devastated economy or allow rebuilding of all that was destroyed in last year’s war.
The White House welcomed the changes that were announced Monday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama. International Mideast envoy Tony Blair said Israel’s measures “should have a dramatic influence on the daily lives of the people of Gaza and on the private sector.”
The new blockade rules come in response to an outcry following a deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting flotilla at the end of May.
Gaza business leaders and rights activists said the measures are far short of what Gaza needs, and that the only active cargo crossing, Kerem Shalom, may not be enough to bring in all the goods now permitted.
Israeli officials said the remaining restrictions, including on exports, are essential for maintaining security.
On Monday, goods dropped off at Kerem Shalom included washing machines, which were previously banned from import. Aid supplies that had been transported on the intercepted flotilla also found their way to the crossing, including previously banned mattresses.
Israel started restricting movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after the 2006 capture of an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, by Hamas-allied militants. A year later, when the Islamic militant Hamas overran Gaza, Israel – backed by Egypt – imposed a fuller closure, allowing in only a few dozen types of humanitarian goods like basic foods and medicine.
Israel says it will lift the blockade if Hamas releases the soldier, recognizes Israel and renounces violence. Hamas, which is considered a terror organization by the U.S., Israel and the European Union, has rejected those terms.
Obama, who is hosting Netanyahu at the White House today, has said the blockade is unsustainable and demanded that it be eased significantly. Other world leaders have asked for a complete lifting of the border closure.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday that the new procedure “will make a significant improvement in the lives of people in Gaza, while keeping weapons out of the hands of Hamas.”
Israel said Monday that it will continue to implement changes over the coming weeks. It published a list of goods it will continue to ban from Gaza, with everything else now permitted.
The banned items include weapons and “dual use” goods Israel fears might be diverted by Gaza militants for military purposes, such as fertilizers, gas tanks, drilling equipment and water disinfectant.
Construction materials such as cement, steel cables and concrete blocks will be permitted into Gaza only for projects supervised by international aid agencies. The internationally funded construction of schools, sewage treatment plants and housing projects in Gaza has largely been on hold since 2006, but Israeli officials promised to work quickly now to deliver the supplies.
Aid groups estimate that Gaza needs another 86,000 housing units – mostly to account for population growth, but also to replace thousands of apartments that were destroyed during last year’s Gaza war and previous Israeli military offensives.
Israel has made a serious effort to make a “very clear distinction between the security needs of Israel, that we are committed to keep, and everything else,” said Yossi Gal, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
However, Sari Bashi of the Israeli human rights group Gisha said the benefit to Gaza will be limited.
“Gaza residents can now purchase Israeli-made products, but they are still prevented from engaging in dignified, productive work and from traveling,” she said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed Israel’s new policy was “worthless,” demanding that the blockade be lifted entirely.
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