Israel says easing Gaza land blockade

(Reuters) – Israel said on Thursday it was easing a land blockade of the Gaza Strip that drew heightened international criticism after its deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Hamas-run territory.

A new Israeli-approved product list included all food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels, said Raed Fattouh, the Palestinian coordinator of supplies to Gaza.

But Israel maintained its sea blockade, a ban on exports from the coastal strip and a prohibition against the commercial import of building materials, vital to wide scale reconstruction after the December 2008-January 2009 Gaza war.

Hamas, an Islamist group locked in conflict with Israel, dismissed the new measures as trivial and “media propaganda.”

“What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade. Goods and people must be free to enter and leave. Gaza especially needs construction material, which must be allowed to come in without restrictions,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

An Israeli statement, issued after a security cabinet meeting, said “it was agreed to liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza (and) expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision.”

Israel has said unrestricted import of cement and steel could lead to Hamas Islamists seizing the material and using it to rebuild military infrastructure. It already allows in limited quantities of construction material for U.N. projects.

The announcement did not specify how procedures for the import of commercial goods would change or list any specific products, saying only that cabinet ministers would decide in the coming days how to implement the revised policy.

But it noted “existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materials” would continue.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak later told reporters more goods would reach the Gaza Strip “without lifting the sea blockade,” a measure Israel says is aimed at curbing arms smuggling to Hamas.

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