Israeli ministers to vote on easing Gaza blockade

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel will significantly ease its bruising land blockade of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, officials said, in an effort to blunt the widespread international criticism that has followed a deadly Israeli commando raid on a blockade-busting flotilla.

Senior Cabinet ministers were meeting to limit restrictions on what gets into Gaza - materials Israel says militants could use in their battle against the Jewish state - to a short list of goods, some of them desperately needed by Gaza civilians.

But the Israeli naval blockade that was at the root of the deadly raid that prompted the international outcry will remain intact.

It also wasn’t clear whether key raw materials for industry would be permitted to enter again and whether Israel would end its ban on Gazan exports.

The three-year-old embargo has shuttered hundreds of Gazan factories, put tens of thousands of people out of work and brought the territory’s fragile economy to a standstill. Travel restrictions that confine most of Gaza’s 1.5 million people to the territory are also likely to remain in effect.

Israel, with Egypt’s cooperation, has blockaded the Palestinian territory by land and sea ever since Hamas militants, with a violent anti-Israel agenda, seized control of Gaza in 2007.

For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed in.

Items such as cement and steel, badly needed to rebuild homes and businesses after Israel’s war in the territory last year, have barely been allowed in. Israel says militants can use them to build weapons and military fortifications.

Under the new guidelines, those materials will be allowed in to an undetermined extent in coordination with the United Nations, but won’t be freely available to private citizens, Israeli officials said. Restrictions on things like school supplies, books, computers and toys are expected to be lifted.

"It would be nice for Gaza residents to be able to receive previously banned items such as paper, toys and computers," said Sari Bashi, an Israeli activist whose Gisha rights group has been fighting to open Gaza’s borders. "But Gaza residents need to be able to receive raw materials in order to engage in productive, dignified work."

The blockade was designed to keep out weapons, turn Gazans against their militant Hamas rulers and pressure the Iranian-backed Hamas to free a captive Israeli soldier. It did not achieve those aims, however, and both weapons and goods sold at black market prices continued to flow into the territory through a large network of smuggling tunnels built under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The blockade did not provoke an international outcry until Israeli commandos killed nine Turks two weeks ago in a raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that sought to draw attention to the blockade’s effects.

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