JERUSALEM: Israel is expected to significantly ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, officials said, in an attempt to blunt the widespread international criticism.Cabinet ministers were meeting yesterday to limit restrictions to a short list of goods, such as cement and steel, which Israel says militants could use against it. Even those goods would be allowed in to an undetermined extent in co-ordination with the United Nations, the officials said.Israel, with Egypt’s co-operation, has blockaded the Palestinian territory by land and sea since Hamas militants seized control of Gaza three years ago. For the most part, only a limited amount of humanitarian goods have been allowed in.The blockade was designed to keep out weapons, turn Gazans against their militant Hamas rulers and pressure Hamas to free a captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.It did not achieve those aims, however, and weapons and goods continued to flow into the territory through a large network of smuggling tunnels built under the Gaza-Egypt border.But although the blockade deepened the poverty in Gaza and confined 1.5 million people to a tiny patch of land, it did not provoke an international outcry until Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists two weeks ago during a raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla.The newspaper Haaretz yesterday quoted the international envoy Tony Blair as hailing the expected vote by the Israeli ministers. ”It will allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there,” the former British prime minister was quoted as saying. ”The policy in Gaza should be to isolate the extremists, but to help the people.”The Israeli government has also been accused of failing 9000 settlers it forcibly evacuated from Gaza almost five years ago, making them ”refugees in the homeland”.A state commission of inquiry, which delivered its 488-page report on the fate of the settlers to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was damning of the bureaucracy and delays surrounding the rehabilitation of those evicted in Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005.”A very grim picture emerges on the ground,” the report said. ”Most of the evacuees still reside in temporary trailer parks – the unemployment rate among the evacuees is double that of the general public; some of the evacuees’ financial state is dire.”Associated Press, Guardian News & Media