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Israel To Ease Gaza Blockade

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Israel agreed Thursday to ease its land blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, hoping to quell growing worldwide outrage following a deadly raid on an international flotilla bound for the Palestinian territory.

The European Union cautiously welcomed the decision, but a senior Hamas lawmaker, Salah Bardawil, dismissed it as "window- dressing."

The Associated Press reports that Israel will now allow in more desperately needed construction materials for civilian projects, provided those projects are carried out under international supervision. Up until now, Israel has barely allowed materials such as cement and steel into Gaza, saying that Hamas militants could potentially use them to build weapons and fortifications.

But that policy has prevented economic development and rebuilding after Israel's destructive war with Hamas in Gaza last year.

A spokesman for Israel said it will "liberalize the system under which civilian goods may enter the Gaza Strip, to expand materials for projects inside Gaza that are under international supervision."

But the easing of the blockade only applies to land access to Gaza, not to the naval blockade that lead to Israel stopping the flotilla in international waters. 

Israel will "continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war material," according to a brief government statement.

There was also no mention of lifting or easing bans on exports or the import of raw materials that would be crucial to galvanizing the territory's battered economy. And the statement contained no specifics on what else would be allowed into Gaza.

But the fact that Israel was forced to respond to an international outcry over the blockade was evidence of the intense pressure the country's leaders felt. It changed its policy after extensive consultations with European and American officials.

Israel, with Egypt's cooperation, imposed the blockade three years ago after Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction, violently wrested control of Gaza. For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed in.

But the blockade failed to achieve its aims of stanching the flow of weapons to Gaza, weakening Hamas or winning the release of an Israeli soldier held in captivity in Gaza for years. A network of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border became a conduit for both weapons and commercial goods sold at black market prices. Gazans sank deeper into poverty, turning their anger against Israel and not their Hamas rulers.

Amid the heavy international criticism that followed the Israeli naval raid, Egypt opened its land border crossing with Gaza - the main gateway for some residents to enter and exit the crowded territory.

But most Gazans remained confined to the territory. Egypt is only letting in people with special travel permits, such as students and Gazans with foreign passports. In the past two weeks, only 10,000 Gazans have crossed into Egypt.

Israel opposes an international investigation into the flotilla raid, and has appointed its own panel of legal experts. That commission met for the first time on Wednesday.