Image: Shipping terminal on Gaza border
Tsafrir Abayov  /  AP
An Israeli worker unloads goods from a truck at Kerem Shalom terminal on the Gaza border in southern Israel on Monday.
By
updated 7/6/2010 12:44:12 AM ET 2010-07-06T04:44:12

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 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 enought 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 on Tuesday, 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 began easing restrictions in the last two weeks and 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.

Image: Ehud Barak, Salam Fayyad
Tara Todras-Whitehill  /  AP
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, shakes hands with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad before their meeting in Jerusalem on Monday.

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 than 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.

Gaza, a strip of land 6 miles wide and 25 miles long and populated by 1.5 million Palestinians, has been occupied by Israelis since the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005, almost two years before the Hamas takeover. Israel closely regulates what goes in and out in an effort to weaken the group and prevent it from receiving weapons and explosives.

All goods will be funneled through Kerem Shalom, Israel's main cargo crossing into Gaza, and Israel does not plan to reopen additional passages it used before the blockade.

Kerem Shalom consists of three paved lots, each ringed by walls of cement slabs, as well as one opening to the Israeli side and another to the Gaza side.

In the morning, Israeli trucks unload the goods in the paved areas, then withdraw back to Israel. Once the Israelis have cleared out, Palestinian truckers arrive from the Gaza side to pick up the merchandise. Israel instituted the measures as a result of attacks by Palestinian militants on the crossing.

In recent weeks, about 140 truckloads a day have passed through the crossing, but Israel hopes to increase the volume to about 250 in coming weeks, said Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the top liaison officer with the Palestinians. Gisha, the human rights group, said that even at the expanded capacity Kerem Shalom could supply only about 70 percent of Gaza's daily needs.

The ban on the import of raw materials and exports forced most of Gaza's 3,900 factories to shut down, wiping out tens of thousands of jobs. Raw materials not on the banned list will now be allowed to enter Gaza, but exports will continue to be banned, with the exception of small seasonal shipments of strawberries and flowers.

In justifying the export ban, Israel points to a suicide bomber who blew himself up in an Israeli port after hiding between the double walls of a shipping container to get there.

Israel permits several hundred Gazans to leave the territory each month, most of them seeking medical treatment in Israel or abroad. Another restricted group can leave via Egypt, which eased travel after the flotilla clash. However, the vast majority of Gazans remain confined to the territory.

The family of Schalit, meanwhile, has renewed its campaign for the soldier's release. Around 15,000 Israelis marched through Tel Aviv on Monday, snarling traffic in the country's economic center, calling on their government to conclude a prisoner swap deal for Schalit.

Later in the day, internationally renowned conductor Zubin Mehta held a symphony concert for Schalit near the Gaza border, and asked Hamas to allow the Red Cross to visit the soldier for the first time.

"We hope and we pray that the music will inspire people on the other side to open their hearts," Mehta told the audience of thousands.

___

Associated Press writer Aron Heller contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Israeli raid sparks widespread protests

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  1. Relatives embrace over the coffin of one of the victims of Israel's deadly raid on aid ships bound for Gaza at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul on Thursday June 3. Nine people, eight Turks and a U.S. national of Turkish origin, were killed in Monday's pre-dawn raid by Israeli forces on the Turkish ferry, Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in an aid flotilla aiming to break the blockade of Gaza. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Israeli Arab lawmaker Hanin Zoabi, right, who was on board the Gaza-bound flotilla when it was raided by Israeli forces Monday, attempts to speak at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, as Anastassia Michaeli, of the ultra-nationalistic Yisrael Beteinu party, center, is escorted off of the podium, in Jerusalem. Zoabi, an Arab lawmaker who sailed with the activists, was heckled when she took the podium in the Israeli parliament Wednesday. "Go to Gaza you traitor," Miri Regev, a lawmaker in the ruling Likud Party, screamed in Arabic. Michaeli was escorted out of the plenum after yelling abuse at Zoabi. (David Vaaknin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A young Muslim girl wears a Palestinian scarf as she performs a special prayer in support of Palestinians in Shah Alam outside Kuala Lumpur. (Samsul Said / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Imams and mourners pray behind the Turkish flag-wrapped coffins of activists, who were killed when Israel seized a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza, during a funeral ceremony at Fatih mosque in Istanbul. (Murad Sezer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Muslim activists shout slogans during a rally denouncing Israel's raid on a pro-Palestinian aid flotilla to Gaza, in Jakarta, Indonesia, (Achmad Ibrahim / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Palestinians ride boats during a protest at the Gaza Seaport against Israel's interception of of Gaza-bound ships. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a televised address at his office in Jerusalem June 2, 2010. Defending Israel's enforcement of its blockade of Gaza, Netanyahu said on Wednesday it was vital for the country's security and would stay in place. (Jim Hollander / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Activists, seized during an Israeli commando raid on an aid convoy sailing to Gaza, are hugged by relatives following their arrival in Jordan, after crossing the Allenby Bridge crossing point between Israel and Jordan Wednesday. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An activist, arrested aboard a Gaza-bound ship, places his hands against the window of a bus as it leaves Ella prison in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Israel began expelling all activists seized during the raid on an aid convoy sailing to Gaza. (Alberto Denkberg / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Palestinian fisherman sits on his boat on the second day of a general strike at the port in Gaza City. Palestinians declared a three-day general strike following Israel's naval raid on an aid flotilla. (Adel Hana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Yemenis in Sanaa demonstrate Tuesday against the Israeli raid and decision to stop the convoy of ships reaching Gaza. Israeli officials have vowed to prevent any other ships from reaching the coastal territory. (Mohamed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Police clash with protesters during a demonstration in Paris, France, Monday. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Israel of a "disproportionate use of force" during the convoy raid in which nine people died. (Lucas Dolega / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A policeman stands over a handmade Star of David during a demonstration by Palestinians living in Greece and pro-Palestinian supporters in Athens. A Greek non-governmental organisation said Israeli forces in helicopters and inflatable boats fired on a Greek vessel in the aid convoy. (Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Police drag a protester during a pro-Palestinian demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in Athens. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Demonstrators protest against Israel in Taksim square, Istanbul. Three or four of the nine on the aid convoy who died are thought to have been Turkish. (Leonhard Foeger / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Turkish protesters shout anti-Israel slogans after the deadly raid on aid ships en route to Gaza. (Tolga Bozoglu / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Palestinian colleagues place an activist onto the back of a truck after she was wounded during a protest against Israel's interception of aid ships sailing to the Gaza strip at the Kalandia checkpoint in the West Bank town of Ramallah. (Atef Safadi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A protester cries during a demonstration at Taksim square in Istanbul. (Thanassis Stavrakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Egyptian anti-riot soldiers prepare to surround an anti-Israel demonstration in Cairo, Egypt. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Left-wing Israelis hold up a Free Gaza banner on the beach in the southern town of Ashdod, Israel. (Jim Hollander / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Lebanese leftists and Palestinians carry a giant Turkish flag during a protest in Beirut against Israel's interception of aid ships sailing to the Gaza Strip. (Sharif Karim / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Israeli police escort a wounded passenger who was with the Gaza aid flotilla as he is brought to Barzilay hospital in the southern city of Ashkelon. (David Buimovitch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. This video image released by the Turkish Aid group IHH purports to show Israeli soldiers boarding a vessel in international waters off the Gaza coast. (IHH via APTN) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. An Israeli naval vessel (bottom) patrols beside one of the six ships in the controversial convoy in the Mediterranean Sea. (Uriel Sinai / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An Israeli military ship (left) intercepts the Gaza-bound aid flotilla during the pre-dawn raid. (Uriel Sinai / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Israeli Navy soldiers stand guard on a missile ship as the Israeli Navy intercepts the convoy. (Uriel Sinai / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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