By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 18, 2010; A18
JERUSALEM -- Israel eased restrictions on goods entering the Gaza Strip on Thursday but left in place a sea blockade of the Palestinian enclave, raising the prospect of further clashes with aid flotillas following last month's deadly confrontation with a Turkish ship.
The decision came amid reports that Israeli foes such as Iran and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, are planning to send additional ships to Gaza. The May 31 confrontation occurred after aid ships refused to detour.
That incident drew the world's attention to the extent of Israel's prohibitions on Gaza-bound goods -- which had covered items from vinegar to school supplies -- and highlighted how dominant Israel remains in the territory, controlling even Palestinians' smallest affairs there five years after withdrawing 8,000 settlers.
After two weeks of behind-the-scenes pressure from European and U.S. diplomats, Israel's security cabinet agreed to let more civilian goods enter the strip, which the Islamist Hamas group has ruled since 2007. But the scope of what would be permitted remained vague.
"The Israeli security envelope around Gaza will continue. There's no substitute for that," said an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Current security measures, the cabinet said, must stay in force to prevent weapons and war materiel from reaching Hamas, which the United States, Israel and the European Union regard as a terrorist organization.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters Thursday that "we welcome the principles" announced by the Israeli government. "They're a step in the right direction," he said, adding that the administration would continue to work with Israel "to improve a humanitarian situation in Gaza that the president has said is unsustainable."
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the United States wants to see "an expansion of the scope and types of goods allowed into Gaza to address the Palestinians' legitimate needs . . . while addressing, obviously, Israel's legitimate security needs."
Israel has yet to decide on additional steps to implement the policy change. Those include whether to reopen crossing points into Gaza that were closed under Hamas's rule, to accommodate additional delivery trucks, and whether to station international monitors at the crossing points.
The partial nature of the policy change prompted criticism from some Palestinians, human rights groups and academic observers, who said it did not go far enough.
Although Israel is trying to "make it appear that it has eased" the blockade, "in reality, the siege of the Gaza Strip, illegally imposed on Palestinians, continues unabated," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Amnesty International said the decision was not enough to end the "collective punishment" of Gazans.
Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University international relations professor, described the decision as an "arrogant in-your-face to the U.S. and other concerned members of the international community."
"If Israel was serious about improving the living conditions of Gazans, it would stop preventing the exports of agricultural goods and allow the strip's simple manufacturing sector to resume making and selling everyday essentials," Norton said.
A military spokesman had said after the cabinet decision that all food would be allowed to enter the territory as of Sunday, including industrial-size containers of ingredients such as margarine, necessary for food production.
Many factories closed in the past three years because of the ban, which was designed to put pressure on the Palestinian economy as part of an effort to foster popular dissatisfaction with the Hamas leadership.
But Raed Fattouh, head of a Palestinian committee that coordinates the flow of goods with Israel, said he had been told that all food sold at a supermarket would now be permitted and that the ban on foods sized for factory production would continue.
Fattouh estimated that Israel on Thursday had doubled the number of products that can enter to 250, although it remains a fraction of the total allowed in before Hamas took power.
Israel said that crucial building items would still be permitted only for projects that are monitored by a third party.
In addition to the criticism that the changes don't go far enough, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also faced the accusation that they go too far.
"The easing of the closure is a victory for terror," said Yoel Hasson, a lawmaker from the centrist opposition Kadima party. "Netanyahu's campaign slogan of 'strong against Hamas' today became empty words. The absence of a clear diplomatic strategy is leading Israel to international isolation while ending Hamas's isolation."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and staff writers Scott Wilson and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.