January 1, 2013 in Nation/World

Israel loosens Gaza restrictions

Building materials allowed, seen as test
Associated Press

JERUSALEM – In a major concession to Gaza’s Hamas leaders Monday, Israel dropped its five-year ban on construction materials crossing into the territory and raised hopes there that rebuilding could begin following a damaging eight-day Israeli air campaign.

The easing of restrictions is an outgrowth of the cease-fire that ended the airstrikes and months of daily rocket fire from Gaza at Israel. Contacts mediated by Egypt to follow up the truce produced the concession, and Israel promised to keep easing the lives of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, as long as Israelis were no longer targeted by rocket fire by Gaza militants.

How long the new arrangement holds could serve as a test case for the brittle truce between the bitter enemies. It also reflects a new power equation, with neighboring Egypt under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent group of Hamas.

Israel, together with Egypt, imposed a land and naval embargo on Gaza after Hamas violently overtook the territory in 2007. Although Israel eased the restrictions in 2010, building materials such as cement, gravel and metal rods were still largely banned because Israel claimed militants could use them to make fortifications and weapons.

Hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border gave Gaza a conduit for all manner of goods as well as weapons, though the blockade remained intact.

During eight days of violence in November, the Israeli military said 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel, including the first from Gaza to strike the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. The rocket attacks killed six Israelis and wounded dozens. Israeli airstrikes killed 169 Palestinians, many of them militants, and caused considerable damage. Israel said it targeted Hamas installations and government buildings.

As part of a cease-fire agreement brokered by Egypt’s new Islamist leaders, Israel agreed to consider new border arrangements in return for a complete cessation of rocket fire.

“Now we’re talking about a permanent easing,” said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman. “The longer the calm persists, the more we’ll weigh additional easing of restrictions that will benefit the private sector.”

Hamas downplayed the move, calling it inadequate. Gaza economists said it would take years of shipments to make a dent in the gap left by the five years of blockade.

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