JERUSALEM — Israel announced Thursday that it will loosen its blockade of the Gaza Strip and allow more goods to enter the territory. The decision came in response to international pressure on Israel to end its siege of the strip after an Israeli raid on a Turkish aid ship that left nine activists dead.
Israel's security Cabinet, a grouping of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's closest advisers, agreed to "liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza" and "expand the inflow" of building materials for civilian construction projects under international supervision, a statement released by Netanyahu's spokesman said.
The statement said that Israel would continue "existing security procedures" to prevent the transfer of "weapons and war materiel" to the Gaza Strip and that the Israeli Cabinet would decide in the coming days on additional steps to implement the policy.
It appeared that goods must still be transferred over land, rather than by sea directly to Gaza. Ships carrying aid or material destined for Gaza would still have to stop at Israeli ports for international inspection of the goods, which would then be trucked to the territory.
The May 31 flotilla confrontation occurred when aid ships refused to detour to an Israeli port. With a ban remaining on many items, it seemed likely that aid flotillas would continue to try to breach the Israeli blockade.
In announcing its decision, Israel also called on the international community to work toward the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is being held captive by the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
As of Sunday, an Israeli military spokesman said, all food items will be allowed to enter Gaza from Israel. Previously, Israel blocked foods such as vinegar, nutmeg and chocolate and banned industrial-sized containers of foods such as margarine, necessary for food production in Gaza factories.
Many factories were shuttered in the past three years because 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.
The announcement that Israel would ease the blockade came after two days of consultations by the security Cabinet and two weeks of feverish, behind-the-scenes diplomacy involving Israeli, American and European diplomats.
The goal has been to find ways to allow more products into Gaza and to establish new mechanisms for monitoring the goods' import, perhaps by outside parties, as part of an effort to avoid further clashes with aid flotillas at sea.
Reports that Israeli foes such as Iran and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, might send additional aid ships to Gaza lent urgency to the Israeli discussions and created the specter of another confrontation if the Gaza policy was not amended soon.
That Netanyahu was willing to modify the blockade at all is a shift for the Israeli leader, who in the immediate aftermath of the flotilla incident was defiant of international criticism, insisting that the siege was necessary to Israel's security.
Of course, as with many events in the Mideast, the blockade modification isn't clear cut. Haaretz.com, an English-language website with news and analysis of Israel and the Middle East, reported that Netanyahu's office issued two press releases: one in English, the other in Hebrew. And, Haaretz said, the Hebrew version made no mention of a binding decision on the blockade.
The website quoted a senior defense official as saying the intention is to increase the flow of goods. It also reported that sources in the prime minister's office admitted there was no decision and no vote during the security cabinet meeting.
The reported ended with the prime minister's office source saying a meeting will be held soon and they hope a binding decision will be taken then.