Human rights groups say new measures do not go far enough
Israel will ease much of its land blockade on the Gaza Strip, hoping to stop growing international criticism following the assault on a flotilla of aid ships in which nine activists were killed.
A statement from prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office said that Israeli leaders decided today to expand the number of products Israel will allow into Gaza, including construction materials.
"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," an official statement said, without specifying any product list.
The new arrangements, which were decided upon in a series of meetings between the Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair and Netanyahu, over the past 10 days, are expected to cover three areas:
• A list of prohibited goods not allowed into Gaza, replacing the current system of a list of approved goods
• Agreement to allow construction materials for UN-sponsored projects
• Israel to consider allowing EU monitors to be stationed at crossings between Israel and Gaza
Blair described the move as a "very important step".
"It will allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there," he told the Israeli daily Haaretz. "The policy in Gaza should be to isolate the extremists but to help the people."
The Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog told Israel's army radio: "We must understand that the blockade implemented until this time is outdated and no longer applicable in the current international and diplomatic climate."
The plan falls short of demands by the international community on Israel to lift the blockade and allow the legitimate Gaza economy to recover.
Currently Israel operates a frequently changing list of items permitted into Gaza, with a ban on all other goods. By reversing this approach to a banned list the hope is that many more items will be permitted and there will be greater transparency and accountability.
Gisha, an Israeli human rights organisation, suggested the move was merely cosmetic.
"The time has come for Israel to ask serious questions about how three years of closure have promoted the goals it declared for itself and what has been the effect on 1.5 million people whose right to travel and to engage in productive work has been denied. We don't need cosmetic changes. We need a policy that recognises the rights of Palestinian residents of Gaza not just to consume but also to produce and to travel."
Chris Gunness, UN spokesman, said the blockade should be lifted entirely. "We need to judge the Israeli authorities by deeds not words because there have been many words in the past," he said.
"What we've been getting into Gaza is a drop in the bucket and, given the scale of the humanitarian task, we need to see the blockade ultimately lifted not eased."
The UN has been trying to import construction materials for the past 18 months to repair schools damaged in the Gaza war of 2008-9 and to construct new buildings to accommodate Gaza's exploding population. Israel has refused on the grounds that the materials could fall into the hands of Hamas and be used to make weapons or build underground bunkers.
The UN has consistently offered to guarantee the security of such material.
The Israeli military said yesterday that it had reached an agreement with the UN on the transfer of humanitarian aid – medical supplies, food and clothing – that was on board the flotilla to Gaza. It made no mention of construction materials that formed the bulk of the flotilla's consignment.
The inquiry set up by Israel to examine the events surrounding the flotilla assault is to hold its first meeting today.