Israel eases building materials blockade on Gaza

By Amy Teibel and Ibrahim Barzak, AP

JERUSALEM–Israel has started allowing long-banned building materials into the Gaza Strip and will continue to do so if the quiet along their border holds, the military said Monday in its first key concession to Hamas under the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended eight days of fighting last month.

Israel blocked such shipments after Hamas militants seized the Palestinian territory in 2007, contending materials like cement, gravel and metal rods can also be used to make fortifications and weapons to attack Israel.

The military says it began allowing shipments of gravel to Gaza’s private sector on Sunday because the Israeli attacks on Hamas’ military operations in November cowed the militants into quiet. Gaza economists say it would take years of round-the-clock shipments to even make a dent in the gap left by the Israeli blockade, which the territory’s other neighbor Egypt joined.

After the November hostilities, Israel and Hamas began indirect, Egyptian-led talks over new border arrangements. The militant group wants Israel to lift what remains of a sweeping land and naval embargo it imposed after the Hamas takeover. In return, Israel demands an end to arms smuggling into Gaza.

With limited exceptions, Israel had blocked construction materials from entering Gaza.

“Now we’re talking about a permanent easing,” said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman, adding that 20 truckloads a day could enter Gaza, depending on Palestinian demand. Other concessions could follow, he said.

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

Israel recently 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.

Another major concession the Gazans seek would be a 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.

Exports might be expanded, Inbar said, “depending on the continuation of the calm.”

Critics contend the export ban punishes ordinary Gazans instead of pressuring Hamas. Eighty percent of Gaza’s 1.6 million people rely on U.N. handouts.