Israel drops Gaza goods restrictions

Israel today dropped its long-standing restrictions on allowing consumer goods into the Gaza Strip but retained tight limits on desperately needed construction materials.

The move redefines the rules of its heavily criticised Gaza embargo on the eve of the Israeli prime minister's trip to the White House.

The new rules, which come in response to an international outcry following a deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, should bring some relief to Gaza's 1.5 million people.

The decision ends the use of a narrow and often arbitrary list of permitted items. In a boost to the moribund Gaza economy, officials also said raw materials would soon be allowed to flow to Gaza's shuttered factories.

But prospects for rebuilding the damage from a punishing Israeli military offensive last year remain uncertain.

Israeli officials said construction materials like iron and steel would be allowed to enter only under Israeli supervision for use in projects overseen by the United Nations or other international bodies.

Israel has been under intense international pressure to loosen its three-year embargo on Gaza since Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists in a May 31 raid on a flotilla carrying international activists trying to breach the blockade.

President Barack Obama, who is to meet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, has said the embargo is unsustainable and has called for it to be significantly eased. Other world leaders have demanded the blockade be lifted entirely.

Israel and Egypt closed Gaza's borders after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power in the territory three years ago.

Under the old blockade rules, Israel permitted only a few dozen types of products, including basic food and medicine, into the territory. The system has forced Gazans to become accustomed to shortages of basic items like instant coffee, spices and fresh meat, or to depend on erratic deliveries of goods smuggled through tunnels along the southern border with Egypt.

Now, everything will be allowed into Gaza, except for items on the list.

But it remains unclear how much the order will help Gaza rebuild the damage caused by Israel's three-week military offensive in the winter of 2008-09. The operation, launched to stop Hamas rocket attacks, destroyed thousands of homes, buildings and public infrastructure.

An official familiar with the list said items like iron, steel, cinder blocks, chemicals, fertiliser, building aggregates and jeeps would only be permitted in co-ordination with the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank and international agencies overseeing construction projects.

Israel fears that Hamas could divert these items for military use.

Israel has previously allowed in only a trickle of construction materials for projects overseen by international aid agencies.

Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary committee today that a naval blockade on Gaza would remain in place to keep weapons from reaching Hamas, an official who attended the meeting said.

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