Israel says it will ease Gaza land blockade

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office released few details about the changes in its three-year-old blockade, and it was not clear whether any firm decisions had been made.

The only item singled out in its statement was a plan to allow in desperately needed construction materials for civilian projects, but only under international supervision.

Israel has barely allowed in materials like cement and steel, arguing that Hamas militants could use them to build weapons and fortifications. That policy has prevented Gaza from rebuilding after Israel's fierce war in the territory last year.

It sounds promising, but the details remain to be seen. And implementation may be more tricky than intention.

The naval blockade is to continue.

As of Sunday, an Israeli military spokesman said, all food items will be allowed to enter Gaza from Israel. Previously, Israel blocked foods like vinegar, nutmeg and chocolate and banned industrial-sized containers of foods like margarine, necessary for food production in Gaza factories.

Many factories were shuttered in the past three years because of the of the ban, which some say was designed to put pressure on the Palestinian economy and the leadership of Hamas, which governs the territory.

It was not immediately clear Thursday if Israel would end a ban on packaging, cans, fabrics and additives necessary for food production and sale. But the Israeli cabinet decision suggested that Israel would now block only items that could be used both for civilian and military efforts.

I wonder if this means that Israel will allow the economy of Gaza to develop? I think in the past, the goal was to crimp the lives of Gaza residents, perhaps to undermine support for Hamas. But perhaps the tight blockade enhanced Hamas support by making Israel seem an even bigger villain to residents of Gaza. And the tight blockade seemed to strengthen Hamas economically.

At first the resistance economy failed to meet people’s needs. But today, thanks to the tunnels, Gaza’s shop shelves are brimming with goods that often arrive cheaper and faster than when Israel opened the gates. Winches hoist in aggregates, allowing a spate of road repairs and housing construction. The authorities have filled in the craters in the football stadia left by Israel’s bombs and adorned the highways with cat’s eyes. Unlike post-war repairs elsewhere, the reconstruction is home-grown. Hamstrung by their own restrictions which prevent them buying smuggled goods, the UN and other international agencies have written themselves out of the repair effort. Unable to bring in cement to repair its schools, UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency which educates half of Gaza’s children, arranged to teach children in shipping containers, before Israel banned those too.

Humanitarian agencies, with an eye on external financing, bewail the lack of development. But their indices miss the point. Gaza is redeveloping, and Hamas is making society in its own image. Huge amounts now pass through the tunnel shafts each year, creating a new economy from which Hamas creams a handsome share of the profits to finance its rule. “The siege is a gift,” says a Hamas minister.

Co-ordinating the effort is a remarkably well-oiled bureaucracy. To finance its half-billion-dollar annual budget, the Hamas government has instituted an effective tax regime, raising duties on tunnel imports, including cigarettes, petrol, clothes and bread. Officials claim to have achieved self-sufficiency in melons (piled high on the roadsides) and onions; and the price of eggs has fallen to half what it is in the West Bank. With fishing in the seas restricted by Israel’s navy, Hamas is opening fish-farms in former Israeli settlements. Its institutions publish online compendia of the government’s directives, the results of civil service exams (based, they claim, on merit, not factional allegiance), and send text messages to the lucky few cleared for travel to Egypt to update them on bus and crossing times.

Will the loosened blockade do more to weaken Hamas?

Time Magazine's take on "What Israelis Really Think Should Be Done About Gaza:"

Until the flotilla fiasco, the blockade of Gaza was not a matter of great concern to the Israeli public. And Thursday's decision by Israel's government to loosen its grip on the flow of goods into the territory — vague on specifics and heavy on conspicuous intent — was aimed squarely at a world watching from beyond missile range.

In a small country united by, among other things, an abiding sense of vulnerability, the missile attacks are synonymous with "Gaza." And though they have grown less frequent since Israel invaded the coastal strip in December 2008, what remains foremost in the popular imagination are periods when they seemed incessant. Gallingly, rocket attacks surged after Israel pulled its settlers and soldiers out of the coastal strip five years ago.

Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political consultant who works largely with the Israeli left, says that preoccupation with security, if not punishment, trumps concerns about hardship inside Gaza. "The pragmatic center, they don't see it," Scheindlin says, referring to the swing bloc that carries elections. "The narrative is, 'We left Gaza and got a rain of Qassam rockets. We gave them everything they wanted and we got a rain of Qassam rockets and a Hamas takeover.' I hear it over and over again in focus groups.",8599,1997832,00.html

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