Israel’s announcement Thursday that it would ease the restrictions on goods entering Gaza has been received by NGOs and the international community as a move in the right direction, but as not going far enough in lifting the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip.
Details of the plan have not been fully disclosed but Israeli media has reported that restrictions on items such as jam, pasta and milk would be lifted.
The Israeli announcement comes as international condemnation of the blockade of Gaza received renewed attention after an Israeli raid on ships attempting to bring relief supplies through the blockade resulted in the death of nine of the ships’ passengers.
Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama had remarked that the siege of Gaza was "unsustainable" and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called it "unsustainable and unacceptable."
The Obama administration responded favorably to the Israeli decision to ease the blockade but reiterated Obama’s criticisms.
"[W]e welcome the general principles announced earlier today by the Israeli government. They reflect the type of changes we’ve been significant with our Israeli friends," said State Department spokesperson Mark Toner.
"As the president has said, the situation in Gaza is unsustainable. And as these principles get further developed and implemented, we’re hopeful that the situation in Gaza will improve," Toner continued.
According to the World Health Organization, mortality rates are 30 percent higher in Gaza than in Palestinian populations in the West Bank and chronic malnutrition is now over 10 percent.
The renewed focus on the humanitarian situation in Gaza led to a new 400-million-dollar commitment for development aid from the U.S.
The conditions of the Israeli embargo on Gaza were modified in an Israeli security cabinet vote which specified that the government will "expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision" but "continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war material", according to a statement released by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
The new policies will have no impact on the maritime blockade, which will remain in place.
Media reports say that the modifications to the embargo were reached as a result of negotiations between the Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair and Netanyahu.
Modifications to the blockade will include a list of prohibited goods replacing a current system which just lists approved goods; approval for the import of construction supplies for U.N.-sponsored projects; and a consideration that Israel might allow EU observers at border crossings.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "encouraged" by Israel’s decision but that the U.N. "continues to seek a fundamental change in policy."
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat responded even more critically to the Israeli announcement, saying, "With this decision, Israel attempts to make it appear that it has eased its four-year blockade and its even longer-standing access and movement restrictions imposed on the population of Gaza. In reality, the siege of the Gaza Strip, illegally imposed on Palestinians, continues unabated."
International NGOs also expressed reservations over the continued restrictions on the import of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
"Oxfam recognizes the Israeli security cabinet’s announcement as a welcome step in the right direction. However, it is a far cry from the full lifting of the blockade that is urgently needed," said the aid group’s head Jeremy Hobbes.
"Only a full opening of all crossings to people and goods, including exports, can be the breakthrough that will enable Gazan civilians to restore their economy and escape the poverty the blockade has entrenched. The international community must press for the blockade to be fully lifted, rather than only eased," he continued.
"This announcement makes it clear that Israel is not intending to end its collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population, but only ease it. This is not enough," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"Any step that will help reduce the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza is to be welcomed, but Israel must now comply with its obligations as the occupying power under international law and immediately lift the blockade," he said.
Sami Abu Zuhri, spokesperson for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said in a statement that the Israeli announcement was "media propaganda" and "the Israeli decision to increase varieties and quantities of goods to Gaza is aimed at decorating the blockade and ensuring its continuation … in addition to misleading the international public opinion by giving the impression of easing the blockade."
The Gaza Strip has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007 when Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. classify as a terrorist organization, won Palestinian legislative elections and, in the Battle of Gaza, took complete control of the territory.
In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council called for Israel to lift the siege on Gaza.
(Inter Press Service)