Officials: Israel to Significantly Ease Gaza Blockade

JERUSALEM -- Israel will significantly ease its bruising land blockade of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, officials said, in an effort to blunt the widespread international criticism that has followed a deadly Israeli commando raid on a blockade-busting flotilla.

Senior Cabinet ministers were meeting to limit restrictions on what gets into Gaza -- materials Israel says militants could use in their battle against the Jewish state -- to a short list of goods, some of them desperately needed by Gaza civilians.

But the Israeli naval blockade that was at the root of the deadly raid that prompted the international outcry will remain intact.

It also wasn't clear whether key raw materials for industry would be permitted to enter again and whether Israel would end its ban on Gazan exports.

The three-year-old embargo has shuttered hundreds of Gazan factories, put tens of thousands of people out of work and brought the territory's fragile economy to a standstill. Travel restrictions that confine most of Gaza's 1.5 million people to the territory are also likely to remain in effect.

Israel, with Egypt's cooperation, has blockaded the Palestinian territory by land and sea ever since Hamas militants, with a violent anti-Israel agenda, seized control of Gaza in 2007.

For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed in.

Items such as cement and steel, badly needed to rebuild homes and businesses after Israel's war in the territory last year, have barely been allowed in. Israel says militants can use them to build weapons and military fortifications.

Under the new guidelines, those materials will be allowed in to an undetermined extent in coordination with the United Nations, but won't be freely available to private citizens, Israeli officials said. Restrictions on things like school supplies, books, computers and toys are expected to be lifted.

"It would be nice for Gaza residents to be able to receive previously banned items such as paper, toys and computers," said Sari Bashi, an Israeli activist whose Gisha rights group has been fighting to open Gaza's borders. "But Gaza residents need to be able to receive raw materials in order to engage in productive, dignified work."

The blockade was designed to keep out weapons, turn Gazans against their militant Hamas rulers and pressure the Iranian-backed Hamas to free a captive Israeli soldier. It did not achieve those aims, however, and both weapons and goods sold at black market prices continued to flow into the territory through a large network of smuggling tunnels built under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The blockade did not provoke an international outcry until Israeli commandos killed nine Turks two weeks ago in a raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that sought to draw attention to the blockade's effects.

With pro-Palestinian activists promising to keep blockade-busting boats coming, Israel has been scrambling to find ways to ease the embargo and its own growing international isolation.

Relaxing the restrictions on goods that go through Israeli-controlled land crossings is less complicated than easing the sea blockade. Israel is afraid that weapons ships will stream into Gaza if the naval blockade is lifted, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing that Israel would "not allow the establishment of an Iranian port in Gaza."

On Wednesday, a top Israeli security chief warned against lifting the sea blockade, saying that even international inspectors would not be able to keep Israel safe.

The Haaretz newspaper on Wednesday quoted international envoy Tony Blair as hailing the expected vote by the Israeli ministers.

"It will allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there," Blair was quoted as saying. "The policy in Gaza should be to isolate the extremists but to help the people"

Blair represents the Quartet of Mideast negotiators -- the U.S., European Union, U.N. and Russia.