Israeli ministers to decide on easing Gaza restrictions on Thursday

After four hours of talks on Wednesday, Israel's security cabinet failed to agree on the extent to which it is prepared to ease the security restrictions currently imposed on the Gaza Strip.

The ministers are slated to reconvene on Thursday morning to continue their deliberations.

The debate came as Israel is under intense international pressure to allow greater passage of goods in and out of Gaza to help the Palestinian territory's ailing economy.

Key Changes

At the moment anyone wishing to import goods into the coastal enclave must consult a list that includes all permitted goods. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brought to the table a plan to only list banned goods, making the flow of items into Gaza far easier.

"That's one of the ideas on the table, but no one has voted yet, " said Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev.

The banned goods are expected to include all forms of weaponry, military equipment and construction materials such as metal pipes and cement. Israel fears pipes would be used in the construction of rockets and the cement would go towards constructing underground bunkers rather than helping to rebuild Gaza.

There appears to be unanimity in Israeli governmental circles that there will be no lifting of the maritime blockade. One solution to marine cargoes is that they be unloaded at the nearest Israeli port to Gaza -- Ashdod, or that they be offloaded in Egypt and from there be transferred northwards by road to Gaza.

Ahead of the Israeli ministerial meeting Palestinian officials laid out their expectations.

"All the needs of Gaza must be provided completely," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine Radio.

The Israelis must also allow free trade between the two Palestinian territories -- the West Bank, which is controlled by the Fatah movement, and the Gaza Strip, said Erekat.

There is no territorial contiguity between them with Israel wedged in the middle.

Blair's Role

Much of the work behind the scenes to reach the easing of the restrictions involved former British Premier Tony Blair, who these days acts as the envoy of the peace Quartet. The Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- is the main sponsor of the current peace initiative aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"I welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu's clear distinction between Israel's necessity to protect its security and otherwise to allow Gaza people to get the goods and material they require for ordinary life," Blair said in a statement earlier this week.

"I hope this will enable us to move decisively to a policy on Gaza, which keeps out weapons and other combat related material but lets in as a matter of course those items that Gaza people need to improve their lives. This also will enable the United Nations projects for re-construction to go ahead," he continued.

Blair has been reportedly pressuring Israel to allow both international and Palestinian observers to be deployed at the crossing points between Israel and Gaza to ensure that Israel sticks to its word.

Netanyahu maintains that the planned changes at the crossing points were in the works prior to the May 31 killing of nine people on board a Turkish vessel that was leading an international aid flotilla bound for Gaza. The deaths occurred when Israeli commandoes boarded the Mavi Maramara and were met with stiff opposition.

"Before the flotilla set sail for Gaza, we discussed, in various forums, the continuation of our policy toward the Gaza Strip," Netanyahu said on Sunday.

"The principle guiding our policy is clear -- to prevent the entry of war materiels from entering Gaza and to allow the entry of humanitarian aids and noncontraband goods into the Gaza Strip," he said.

"No Humanitarian Crisis"

In recent days there has been increasing agreement in the international community and among Palestinians with the Israeli claim that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

However, representatives of international organizations do point to the high unemployment in the strip and the lack of freedom of movement for Gazans.

Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement earlier this week pointing to the aid it allowed into Gaza in the week of the flotilla episode.

Some 12,400 tons of aids entered Gaza on board 484 trucks. The ministry said various commodities were allowed in, including cooking oil, milk powder, baby food, rice, legumes, wheat, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, chicken and fish products, flour, dairy products, animal feed, salt, sugar, hygiene products, medicine and medical equipment, cement, iron, clothing and footwear.

Additionally, according to the ministry heavy-duty diesel was transferred to the Gaza power station.

More than 200 members of international organizations entered Gaza from Israel and some 370 patients and their carers left Gaza via Israel.

Yet this has been insufficient to please the international community and the Palestinians.

Ever since Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza three years ago, the Palestinian leadership, including Fatah, has demanded its end. The latest plea was made on Tuesday by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, when he met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"We told the Americans that the siege should be lifted. This means opening all the Israeli crossings," Abbas said in a news conference.

Whether these changes satisfy the Palestinians will be determined over the next few days.

Others like Turkey will want to have their say, too. Israel will also be anxiously waiting to see whether the organizers of 10 planned flotillas decided to go ahead with them because the maritime blockage remains intact.

On the positive, the Israelis will be hoping that Thursday's decision will be seen in Ramallah as a goodwill gesture, allowing new hope to permeate into the on-off indirect peace talks.

[Source: Xinhua, Jerusalem, 17Jun10]

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