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Israel relaxes Gaza blockade to allow 'non-military goods'

By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

Israel was last night forced by concerted international pressure into promising to relax its three-year-old blockade of Gaza by allowing in all goods except those which could be used for military purposes by the Palestinian armed factions.

While the change of policy has yet to be tested in practice over the coming weeks, it appears to be a significant political concession to the demands of the international Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who pressed hard for a relaxation of the siege in the wake of the lethal commando raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla three weeks ago.

The move, approved by the inner Security Cabinet and announced after yesterday's meeting — the fourth in a fortnight — between the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mr Blair, representing the “quartet” of the US, EU, UN and Russia, means that Israel has agreed to Mr Blair's proposal to susbtitute a “banned list” of goods for the previous “allowed list” of around 100 items that has prevailed up to now.

Aid and UN agencies are likely to insist on the basis of past experience that the decision will have to be judged by whether the embargo is really relaxed in practice, and Mr Blair himself warned yesterday that “there were still issues to be addressed” and that “the test of course will be not what is said, but what is done”.

But the former prime minister said that “the practical effect of this should radically change the flow of goods and material into Gaza” and that his office looked forward to working closely with the government of Israel and other partners on its implementation.

There was no explicit reference in the statement by Mr Netanyahu's office last night to raw materials needed to revive Gaza's paralysed private business sector let alone of the exports of agricultural and manufactured goods that used to flow from the territory before the blockade was imposed in June 2007.

Nor was there any sign that the Israeli government had yet committed to allowing such trade to revive. An Israeli official said that the easing of the blockade would allow in “civilian goods for civilian people” and added: “the direction is clear but we'll have to see how the policy evolves”.

On the other hand it was difficult last night to see how a continued embargo on commercial raw materials could be reconciled with the first sentence of yesterday's Israeli statement. This said that the government would “publish a list of items not permitted into Gaza that is limited to weapons and war materiel, including problematic dual-use items. All items not on this list will be permitted to enter Gaza.”

The statement also confirmed a decision taken last week to “enable and expand” the entry of “dual-use items” — among which Israel has so far listed cement and piping, which it believes could be used by Hamas for military purposes — for use in a limited number of internationally supervised infrastructure and reconstruction projects.

It did not appear to hold out any immediate prospect of reopening the major Israel-Gaza terminal at Karni but instead spoke of expanding the use of the “existing operating crossings” — of which the main one is the lower capacity Kerem Shalom. It did however pledge to open “additional land crossings ... when security concerns are addressed.”

Yesterday's move comes amid concerns in Israel over the threat of a new attempt to break the naval blockade from Lebanese organisations. Last week Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, warned the Beirut government that Israel would hold Lebanon directly responsible for any attempt to break the maritime blockade, which Israel has said it will not lift.

The Israeli human rights agency Gisha last night said it hoped that restrictions would now be “loosened” but added: “A policy consistent with international law would allow free passage of raw materials into Gaza, export of finished goods, and the travel of persons not just for 'humanitarian' reasons but also for work, study, and family unity — subject only to reasonable security checks.”

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