Israel eases Gaza embargo on food, other goods

Let them eat cake — well, at least cookies, potato chips and jam.

That's how many here viewed Israel's relaxation of border restrictions to permit a variety of new items into Gaza Strip. The list, announced Wednesday, includes soda, juice, jam, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies, candy and a variety of herbs, including coriander.

Israel's move impressed almost no one in this impoverished seaside territory. Some accused Israel of tossing them a few scraps to score points with the outside world.

"We don't need jam and chips," said Khitam Abdel Hadi, 30, who lives in a refugee camp near Gaza City. "We need jobs. We need houses. We need the freedom to move around. This is nothing."

At a small grocery store near the Rafah crossing to Egypt, a shopkeeper pointed to the boxes of cookies, chips and candy, and the cooler of fruit juices. "We have all these things already," he said. Food items banned by Israel are routinely brought to Gaza through the network of smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

"Israel is just trying to fix its relationship with the international community after what happened on the flotilla," said Gaza car-parts vendor Samar Attala, 30.

Israel has been facing widespread condemnation over its May 31 raid of an aid flotilla that was attempting to break its naval blockade of Gaza. Nine Turks on board were killed when activists resisted by attacking commandos with knives and iron bars.

Israeli military officials denied that the new rules were in response to criticism over the raid. They accused Palestinians of publicizing the new rules in an attempt to embarrass Israel.

"They are trying to connect this to the flotilla, but it's not," said one military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel insists it has been revising and relaxing its rules for the last three months, permitting limited amounts of previously banned items such as shoes, clothing and even cement, as long as an international aid group or U.N. agency promises to monitor how the cement is used.

Israel says the rules are designed to block "luxury" products or prevent "dual-use" items that might be seized by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza.

Israel has said it fears Hamas will use cement, for example, to build military bunkers. But critics say Hamas gets all the cement it needs through the smuggling tunnels, and that the main victims of the restrictions are Gazans who have been unable to rebuild thousands of homes destroyed during the clash between Israel and Hamas in the last few days of 2008 and early 2009.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said the new policy "shows how ridiculous the Israeli list is."

Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group that has been fighting to lift the Israeli restrictions, called the recent relaxation a "pyrrhic" victory, saying Israel continues to ban more urgently needed items, such as fabric, fishing equipment, spare parts and electronics.

But it added, "Gisha is pleased to learn that coriander no longer presents a threat to Israeli security."

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