Gaza waits for Israel's new rules on siege

As Netanyahu yields to international pressure for a policy change, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza renew calls for a total end to the blockade.

A Palestinian boy holds a box of smuggled cigarettes near the entrance of an inactive tunnel which links Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip border town of Rafah on June 21, 2010 after Israel announced it would allow into the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory everything that cannot be used by Gaza's Hamas rulers to build weapons or fortifications, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the tunnel trade that has largely sustained the coastal enclave. AFP PHOTO/SAID KHATIB *** Local Caption ***  824349-01-08.jpg
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RAMALLAH // The besieged people of Gaza were still waiting yesterday for a relaxation of the Israeli blockade that has isolated and imprisoned them for the past three years. Israel has announced that it will allow all but weaponry and dual-use materials into Gaza, in what is widely seen as a ploy to ease growing international pressure for a complete end to the blockade.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was forced into the policy change by worldwide protests, led by Turkey and backed by the US and the European Union, after Israeli commandos killed nine activists on an aid ship bound for Gaza three weeks ago. In a deal understood to have been urged by Tony Blair, envoy for the Quartet of Middle East mediators, Israel says it will no longer restrict imports into Gaza to a list of 114 permitted goods, but instead allow in all goods except those on a list of specifically banned items.

However, the list has not yet been made public - a spokesman for Mr Netanyahu said yesterday it would be published "as soon as possible, hopefully in days" - and it is not clear what Israel will consider dual-use materials. Metals and some fertilisers are likely to be prohibited, while construction materials such as cement will be permitted only for internationally supervised projects approved by the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

The blockade will remain in force as far as maritime access, exports from Gaza and the current three-nautical-mile limit on fishing are concerned, as well as the movement of people, although Israel pledged to make crossing into Israel easier for Palestinians seeking medical attention, and aid workers. The easing of travel restrictions has not happened so far, and Germany yesterday made an official complaint to Israel after a minister was denied access to Gaza.

Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, reacted sceptically to the Israeli announcement. "Gaza needs a full lifting of the blockade," said Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas government's director of crossings. "Gaza's economy has been devastated by the siege and only by allowing businesses here to import and export will any recovery be possible." Mr Hamad said the easing of the blockade could be a first, "positive step", but that nothing had noticeably changed yet. "Let's see what happens on the ground. We have heard Israeli declarations come and be broken before. Israel wants to keep control of the crossings but it also wants to pretend that Gaza is no longer occupied territory. That is not a logical position." The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has also dismissed the measure as insufficient and called for a total lifting of the blockade. The White House has announced that the US president, Barack Obama, will hold talks with the Israeli prime minister in Washington on July 6. Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu had planned talks on June 1 but they were cancelled in the aftermath of the raid. Domestically, meanwhile, the Israeli government has been busy trying to defend the easing as a means to strengthen what officials now refer to as a "security blockade". Mr Netanyahu said in an address to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee yesterday that "the cabinet decision is aimed at this, at tightening the security blockade". The decision is "the right decision for Israel, because it negates Hamas propaganda's main claim", he said. But the blockade was imposed in the first place to weaken Hamas, and some analysts suggest that Mr Netanyahu is simply trying to save face after yielding to international pressure. "Netanyahu folds under pressure," said Yossi Alpher, a Tel Aviv-based analyst. "And he has folded again and again over the flotilla incident." Mr Alpher argued that Mr Netanyahu would be able to ride the storm, but suggested that there would have to be some "political compensation". "The question is, who does he compensate? His right-wing coalition partners, who did not want him to ease the blockade, or Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] who has again been left out in the cold?" Mr Alpher suggested that easing the blockade on Gaza could weaken Mr Abbas, since it reinforced Hamas's position that negotiating with Israel does not bring concessions. Yet it seems more likely that Mr Netanyahu will focus on placating his right wing coalition partners. Reports in the Palestinian press yesterday suggested that Israeli bulldozers had broken ground on 600 new settlement units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev. The building had been approved in February, but under US pressure, Israel has tried to avoid provoking anger over settlements in East Jerusalem, even if the temporary and partial freeze on settlement construction elsewhere in the occupied West Bank does not cover the city. The Israeli Jerusalem municipality also announced yesterday that it would proceed with the demolition of 22 Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem. Such moves will be significantly harder for Mr Netanyahu to oppose if he does not want to further alienate his right-wing government partners.