In easing of blockade, Israel approves 250 tons of construction material to upgrade Gaza plant

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel began moving 250 tons of construction supplies into Gaza on Monday, the largest shipment of raw materials to the coastal territory since it eased a blockade in the wake of a deadly raid on a flotilla trying to break the embargo in May.

The pipes, iron and other materials will be used to upgrade a Gaza City waste treatment plant, said Maj. Guy Inbar, a defense official who helps coordinate transfers of goods from Israel into Gaza.

The upgraded plant will be able to treat 20 million gallons (75 million liters) of waste a day, nearly double the current level, said Gaza water official Maher Najjar.

Gaza has been dumping about 5 million gallons (20 million liters) into the Mediterranean Sea each day because of the plant's insufficient capacity. He said the German-funded upgrade, expected to take two months, will allow the plant to process all waste and halt the dumping.

"We have begun, piece by piece," Najjar said. He said he expected everything to be in Gaza within several days.

The project has existed on paper since the 1990s. But after repeated delays, it was put on hold because of the Israeli blockade.

"Today marks a successful start," said Germany's development aid minister, Dirk Niebel. "I hope that the import of the construction material will continue to go smoothly and the project is swiftly implemented in the coming months."

Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in 2007 and has barred most construction material from entering. Israel said the goods could be used by Hamas to manufacture weapons. A range of consumer goods were also banned or tightly restricted, from chocolate, pasta and tea to computers and cars.

Under heavy international pressure, Israel eased the blockade after its raid on a Gaza-bound international flotilla that had been trying to breach the embargo.

Israeli naval commandos clashed with protesters on one of the ships, resulting in the deaths of nine Turks, one of them a dual American citizen. The army and the activists have accused each other of sparking the violence.

Israel now allows in virtually all foods and consumer items. But it still bans most Gaza exports, and restrictions on construction materials remain largely in place.

Israel has allowed construction materials to enter in drips since easing its blockade, Gaza officials and aid workers said. Army official Inbar said Israel's military has approved 31 new projects by international aid organizations since the botched flotilla raid.

Israel has launched an inquiry into the raid, calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials to testify.

On Monday, the commission investigating the raid asked the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv to summon the captain of the ship where the violence took place, Mahmut Tural, to testify. It was unclear whether he would comply.

In Turkey, Tural's lawyer, Ramazan Ariturk, said his client still had not received a formal summons and had not decided whether he would cooperate.

"We will make our decision after receiving the documents. There is a possibility that he could testify at a Turkish court which later could relay his testimony to Israel," said Ariturk. "But I can't say whether he will testify or not. He has no obligation to testify since he is just a witness."

The commission's deliberations are expected to take months.


Associated Press Writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.