Israel agrees to ease restrictions on imports into Gaza

JERUSALEM – Israel said Thursday it has agreed in principle to ease some restrictions on the flow of certain kinds of goods into the Gaza Strip. But details were not disclosed and Cabinet members remain undecided over how much to loosen the rules, officials said.

After two days of internal debate amid heavy international pressure to overhaul its Gaza policy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security Cabinet issued a short statement promising to make “adjustments” and to “liberalize” its policy of tightly restricting the passage of food, household supplies, construction material and other goods over Israel’s borders into the seaside enclave. Generally speaking, only basic humanitarian goods have been permitted in.
Some observers took the vaguely worded statement as a sign that members of Netanyahu’s coalition government need more time to settle disagreements over whether to make minor modifications to the policy or pursue a major overhaul.

“This shows the depths of disagreement on the Gaza policy,” said one government official speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is huge gap between Cabinet members.”

Another government official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because the final policy has not been announced, said divisions were being exaggerated and consensus was likely to be reached in the coming days.
In its statement, the government acknowledged that details have yet to be hammered out, promising to “decide in the coming days on additional steps to implement this policy.”

The Obama administration had no immediate public reaction Thursday, though one official privately welcomed the announcement and said he looked forward to knowing more about Israel’s plans.

“Things seem to be moving in the right direction,” the official said.

But no changes are being contemplated to Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, which led to a deadly May 31 raid on a flotilla of ships carrying aid, or to restrictions on the movement of people in and out of Gaza.

A significant change in the Gaza restrictions would mark an abrupt reversal for Israel, which for three years has defended its policy as essential to ensuring its security. Israeli officials said part of the goal was to isolate Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that won 2006 Palestinian elections and seized control of Gaza a year later.

As recently as last week Israeli military officials were warning that the importation of many products, including cement, medical supplies and spare parts, could have “dual-use” applications in building weapons or supporting terrorism.

But after rising international criticism over Israel’s high-seas raid last month, Netanyahu came under intense pressure from the U.S. and other Western allies to change the policy. Nine activists were killed during the attack on the flotilla, which was attempting to break Israel’s naval cordon.

Under border restrictions now imposed by Israel and Egypt, Gaza’s economy has been devastated and thousands of families have been unable to rebuild homes destroyed during Israel’s 22-day military assault on Gaza 18 months ago.
One revision being considered would permit all goods into Gaza except those specifically banned or restricted. The idea has been pushed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who serves as the Middle East envoy for the so-called Quartet of the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Union.

Currently Israel takes an opposite approach, banning everything except those items on a preapproved list.
Another option reportedly under review would expand the preapproved list to include more items, such as all types of food, toys and a variety of household goods.

The current policy has frustrated aid groups and Gaza businesses because Israel has refused to publish the list, forcing importers to figure out by trial and error what is permitted.

In addition, the existing restrictions appeared arbitrary and nonsensical to many. Cinnamon is allowed, but not coriander; oil but not vinegar; canned vegetables but not canned fruit.

International reaction to Israel’s announcement was measured, with many aid groups saying they would reserve judgment until more details are revealed and the policy is fully implemented.

“The decision to allow foodstuffs and household items is a good start,” Blair said in a statement, anticipating changes that he expects will be announced. “There are key U.N. projects that can get the go-ahead.” He said the international community would continue to press Israel in coming days to “flesh out the principles now agreed.”