JERUSALEM: Israel has agreed to loosen its land blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, hoping to quell growing international criticism following its deadly raid on an aid convoy.The office of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a statement yesterday that said the security cabinet had approved a plan to ease the three-year-old blockade. However it released few details about the changes, and it was not clear whether any firm decisions had been made, despite two days of cabinet meetings.The only item singled out in the statement was a plan to allow in desperately needed construction materials for civilian projects, but only under international supervision.Israel has barely allowed the entry of materials such as cement and steel, arguing that Hamas militants could use them to build weapons and fortifications. That policy has prevented Gaza from rebuilding after Israel’s fierce war in the territory last year.There was no mention in the statement of any change in other damaging aspects of the blockade, such as bans on exports or allowing in raw materials used in industrial production.The naval blockade will remain. The statement said Israel would ”continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel”. Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that if the naval closure is lifted, Hamas would turn Gaza into an ”Iranian port”.Israel has been scrambling to find ways to ease the blockade since its raid on a blockade-busting flotilla on May 31 turned deadly. The deaths of nine Turkish activists on board one of the ships drew international attention to the blockade and provoked much anger against Israel worldwide.The 15-member security cabinet said it expected the international community ”to work towards the immediate release of Gilad Shalit”, the Israeli soldier snatched by Gaza-based militants in June 2006.Israel first imposed the blockade after the corporal’s capture, but it was tightened significantly – with Egypt’s co-operation – after Hamas forcibly took over the Palestinian enclave a year later.However, the blockade failed to stem the flow of weapons to Gaza or weaken Hamas. A network of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border became a conduit for weapons and for commercial goods sold at black-market prices. Gazans sank deeper into poverty, turning their anger against Israel and not their Hamas rulers.The partial lifting of the siege did not satisfy Hamas. ”We want a real lifting of the siege, not window-dressing,” said a Hamas MP, Salah Bardawil.In the West Bank, the rival pro-Western Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas also rejected the Israeli decision. Its chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the siege ”is collective punishment and it must be lifted”.Amid the heavy international criticism that followed the Israeli naval raid, Egypt opened its land border crossing with Gaza. But most Gazans remained confined to the crowded territory because Egyptian officials say they have let in only about 10,000 people with special travel permits, such as students and people with foreign passports.Associated Press, Agence France-Presse
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