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The Mideast

Israel Allows Some Once-Banned Products Into Gaza

JERUSALEM -- Israel has allowed some previously banned food items into the Gaza Strip, officials said Wednesday, taking a small step toward easing its three-year-old blockade of the territory after worldwide criticism of last week's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound international flotilla.

The decision only narrowly expands the list of goods that can enter Gaza -- and most of the newly permitted items are already being smuggled into the area from neighboring Egypt.

The move also does not include the most-sought items in Gaza, such as cement, steel and other materials needed to rebuild the war-devastated strip.

But it is the first tangible step by Israel to temper the uproar caused by the raid, which left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead after a clash with Israeli naval commandos on one of the flotilla's ships.

Palestinian liaison official Raed Fattouh, who coordinates the flow of goods into Gaza with Israel, said that soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy were now permitted. He said some products have already entered Gaza, and others would cross in the coming days.

The naval raid drew attention to the blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas militants violently seized power in Gaza in 2007.

The closure has devastated Gaza's already battered economy, erased tens of thousands of jobs and prevented the area from repairing damage after a fierce Israeli military offensive in Gaza early last year.

Wednesday's gesture was unlikely to blunt the international criticism since it doesn't lift the ban on materials needed to rebuild Gaza. Fattouh said Israeli officials rebuffed Palestinian requests for construction goods, raw materials for factories to operate and medical devices.

Israeli officials confirmed the decision to allow in the new foods.

They said the move was meant to defuse pressure for an international investigation of the raid. Another government official said they would continue to ease the blockade but offered no further details. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal government announcement.

Much of the international criticism of Israel's blockade has centered on the ban on raw materials and some fuels from entering Gaza, and the arbitrary nature of some of the banned items. Israel had barred things like potato chips and cookies, while permitting gourmet items like diet yogurt and herbal tea.

Turkey has led the international criticism of Israel's policies in Gaza. The nine activists killed last week included eight Turks and a Turkish American.

Murat Mercan, head of the foreign relations committee in the Turkish parliament, said Israel's gesture was insufficient.

"Even if they lift the blockade on all food items, it would still not be satisfactory in any way," he said. "To live like humans, these people need food, medicine, construction material. The children need pens and notebooks."

"Although there is no reason to be hopeful given the past experience, we still try to be cautiously hopeful" about an eventual end to the blockade, he said.

The international uproar has also put pressure on Egypt to ease its closure of Gaza's southern border. Following the flotilla affair, Egypt opened the border to allow Gazans to exit the area. Thousands of people have been waiting to travel abroad for jobs, university study and medical care.