Blair praises easing of Israeli blockade

Tony Blair has welcomed the easing of Israel's blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza to allow in virtually all consumer goods that had been barred for years.

The former British Prime Minister, now Middle East envoy for the Quartet of nations - US, Russia, the UN and the EU - said Israel's measures "should have a dramatic influence on the daily lives of the people of Gaza and on the private sector".

But because Israel will continue to ban most travel and exports and restrict the import of desperately-needed building 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 announced yesterday as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama.

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.

But Gaza business leaders and human rights activists said the measures were far short of what Gaza needed and that the only active cargo crossing, Kerem Shalom, may not be enough to bring in all the goods - items from household cleaners to timber - now permitted.

Israeli officials said the remaining restrictions, including on exports, were essential for maintaining security.

Yesterday, 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, recognises Israel and renounces violence. Hamas, which is considered a terror organisation by the US, Israel and the European Union, has rejected those terms.

Mr Obama, who is hosting Mr 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 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 yesterday that it began easing restrictions in the last two weeks and would continue to implement changes over the coming weeks. It published a list of goods it would 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 fertilisers, petrol 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.

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