Israel eases blockade on building materials to Gaza in concession to Hamas rulers

Israel has started allowing long-banned building materials into the Gaza Strip, its first key concession to the territory's Hamas rulers under a cease-fire that ended eight days of intense fighting last month, the military said Monday.

Israel offered an added incentive to the Islamic militant Hamas as well, with the military saying shipments will continue and a 5-year-old blockade of the Palestinian territory may be eased even further if the border remains quiet.

"Now we're talking about a permanent easing," said military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar. He said 20 truckloads a day could enter Gaza depending on demand and other concessions may follow.

"The longer the calm persists, the more we'll weigh additional easings of restrictions that will benefit the private sector," he said.

A Hamas official described the quantity sent so far as "cosmetic" and Gaza economists said it would take years of round-the-clock shipments to even make a dent in the gap left by the five years of blockade.

Israel imposed a wide-ranging land and naval embargo on Gaza after the Islamic militant Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007. Although it eased the land embargo in 2010, building materials such as cement, gravel and metal rods continued to be largely banned because Israel claimed militants could use them to make fortifications and weapons.

There had been limited exceptions. Israel last week authorized the entry of 60 trucks and buses for the first time since Hamas' 2007 Gaza takeover, though there are conflicting reports on whether vehicles have actually gone through.

The military said it began allowing shipments of gravel to Gaza's private sector on Sunday because the Israeli attacks on Hamas in November had stopped near-daily rocket attacks from Israel.

After the November hostilities, Israel and Hamas began indirect, Egyptian-brokered talks over new border arrangements.

Hamas still wants Israel to lift the remainder of the embargo, including a naval blockade still in place. In return, Israel demands an end to arms smuggling into Gaza.

Gazans also want another major concession from Israel, the lifting of a near-ban on exports from the impoverished territory. Exports, especially to the West Bank, the Palestinian territory on the opposite side of Israel, once formed the backbone of Gaza's economy. The West Bank and Gaza have separate, rival governments.

The army spokesman said exports might be expanded "depending on the continuation of the calm."

Critics contend the export ban punishes ordinary Gazans instead of pressuring Hamas, hurting four in five Gaza factories and contributing heavily to an unemployment rate of about one-third of the workforce. Eighty percent of Gaza's 1.6 million people rely on U.N. handouts.

Hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border gave Gazans a conduit for goods — and weapons — while the embargo remained intact.

Israel lifted its restrictions on consumer goods entering Gaza over land after a deadly Israeli naval raid on a blockade-busting flotilla in 2010 drew international attention to the Israeli blockade. But the blockade on construction materials remained in place, save for shipments used to build U.N. schools and a pilot project of shipments to the private sector a year ago.

"The Israelis promised to undertake further measures to alleviate the difficult economic situation in Gaza as a result of the calm," said Palestinian crossing official Raed Fattouh in Gaza, confirming that the Israelis had agreed to send in 20 trucks of gravel daily, five days a week. "This move had been expected as part of the deal."

Israel has not eased its naval blockade of the territory, which it says is imperative to keep weapons from being smuggled into Gaza by sea.

Egypt, which had joined the Israeli blockade, similarly eased its own restrictions on Saturday, allowing in 1,400 tons of gravel paid for by Qatar. The oil-rich emirate recently pledged $425 million to build housing, schools, a hospital and roads in Gaza as part of its attempt to build its influence in Palestinian politics and its power in the region, at the expense of regional rival Iran, Hamas' longtime patron.

Shipments from Egypt are expected to be ramped up to 4,000 tons daily, said Yassir al Shanti, Gaza's deputy minister of housing and public works. He estimated Gaza needs up to 3 million tons of gravel to build roads and that the Qatar-funded projects need more than 1 million tons.

The shipments from Egypt were launched following consultation with Israeli officials, who were in Cairo Thursday to discuss the cease-fire and other matters, an Egyptian official said last week.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's longtime ally, Egypt had poor relations with Hamas, and teamed up with Israel to blockade Gaza. Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, comes from Hamas' parent group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and has vowed not to abandon the Palestinians. But he is moving cautiously, in part to avoid alienating Cairo's biggest patron, the United States.

Palestinian economist Mouin Rajab said the new shipments would go only a small way to meet the needs Gaza has accumulated throughout five and a half years of blockade, during which time Hamas and Israel warred twice.

"Gaza needs more than what Israel has allowed and what Egypt has promised to allow. We are talking about six years of blockade, no real economy and no projects in addition to what Gaza lost during two wars in 2009 and 2012," Rajab said.

A Hamas government official in Gaza said there was still a long way to go.

"This amount which has been sent by the Israelis still is cosmetic," he said. "Israel, according to the understanding, should allow more building materials into Gaza as part of the understandings reached by Cairo. We are waiting and we told the Egyptians that."

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the understandings.

Reconstruction since the 2009 fighting has been slow, in large part because of the blockades. To make up the shortage, a bustling smuggling industry through underground tunnels along the Egyptian border has sprung up. While prices for key construction goods have come down, they still remain expensive for the majority of Gaza's 1.6 million people, 80 percent of whom rely on U.N. handouts.

Israel and Hamas shun each other, so Egypt is mediating the new border arrangements. A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose confidential contacts, said a Hamas delegation arrived Sunday night in Cairo to meet with Egyptian security officials for a second round of talks on the border arrangements.


Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.