Aid groups: Plight of Gaza civilians still dire

Business and construction in the Gaza Strip remain stifled half a year after Israel announced it would ease its three-year-old blockade of the needy, war-ravaged Palestinian territory, a report by several aid groups said Tuesday.

The groups accused Israel of ducking promises to ease the blockade's effects on civilians, a pledge it made under pressure after a deadly Israeli commando raid in May on an international flotilla protesting the restrictions. The report said Israel is allowing in more food and some building materials but is dragging its feet on major construction projects.

"We aren't seeing an easing of the blockade compared to Israel's declared aims," said Karl Schembri of Oxfam, among the 21 groups behind the report. Others included Amnesty International and Save the Children.

"It's not having any impact," he said.

Israel and Egypt have blockaded Gaza since the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power there in June 2007. Israel says the blockade is needed to keep Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into southern Israel, from building up its arsenal. But critics counter that the blockade has failed to weaken Hamas, while causing widespread misery among Gaza's 1.5 million people.

Government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel is easing the blockade but must check everything entering Gaza.

"We want to see civilian goods reach the civilian population of the Gaza Strip," he said. "Obviously goods have to be checked to make sure weapons and dual-use goods don't enter the Gaza Strip."

Israeli military spokesman Guy Inbar rejected the findings, saying Palestinians in Gaza had not built up the capacity to allow more materials to enter the coastal territory. While they were allowed to bring in 250 trucks a day, Palestinians were only bringing in 176.

Inbar said movement at the crossings was sluggish because the crossings were being renovated to enlarge their capacity.

He said Israel strictly supervised the entry of building materials because militants could use items like concrete and pipes in their fight against Israel.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the report "needs immediate translation into action ... to force the occupation government to immediately end the Gaza Strip's suffering."

The blockade kept out raw materials for factories and construction — hindering economic recovery and reconstruction after Israel's winter 2009 offensive against Hamas, which left thousands of Gaza buildings in ruins. It also penned in residents, banned exports and restricted fuel to Gaza.

Gaza residents largely made due with goods — ranging from cows to computers — smuggled through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

Hamas also obtains building materials, weapons and cash through the tunnels, meaning shortages most harshly affect civilians.

On May 31, Israeli commandos raided an international flotilla seeking to break the blockade, killing nine activists on a Turkish ferry boat. The incident drew international criticism, and Israel said it would ease the blockade and facilitate large projects supervised by the United Nations and other aid groups.

The report said Israel's easing has focused on food and consumer products, which have largely replaced dusty, tunnel-smuggled goods on Gaza's shelves. But it has had little effect on larger projects.

The U.N. has plans to build 100 schools and 10,000 housing units, some to replace those destroyed in the war. The report said it has been able to start only 7 percent of these and even those have been slowed by Israeli bureaucracy and sluggish border crossings.

Israel has allowed other groups to begin work on projects like sewage plants, wells and community centers, but the report describes these as marginal compared with Gaza's needs.

Overall, 11 percent of the materials entering Gaza before the blockade are now getting in, the report said.

The report noted that Israel has allowed in materials like wood for building and butter and fabric for factories. But it said the continued ban on most raw materials has kept 65 percent of Gaza's factories shut.

Some 40 percent of Gazans are unemployed and 80 percent depend on aid.