Israel Eases Gaza Blockade, Allowing Construction Supplies
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The Israeli government has taken steps to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip. For the first time in five years, Israel is allowing shipments of gravel, cement and other construction materials into Gaza. The move is meant to help Palestinians rebuild after November's brief war between Israeli forces and Hamas. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Previously, aid organizations had been allowed to import construction material into Gaza. The eased rules apply to private-sector builders.] Sheera Frenkel reports.
SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Throughout Gaza, construction work is in full swing, as many hasten to repair the damage caused during by Israel's eight-day aerial offensive in November. The announcement that Israel would begin allowing gravel and other construction materials into Gaza was welcomed here, in Ali Abdula'al's construction goods store. He says it's a good thing, but he's not sure it means real change quite yet.
ALI ABDULA'AL: (Through Translator) It is good but the cost is still very high.
FRENKEL: Abdula'al says that over the last five years, Gazans have perfected the art of smuggling in their own construction material through a network of tunnels that run between Gaza and Egypt. The newly available Israeli gravel costs more then the stuff he gets from the tunnels.
ABDULA'AL: (Through Translator) And the Egyptian gravel is just as good. There is also new Turkish gravel that is better and cheaper then the Israeli stuff.
FRENKEL: He says that for as long as the tunnels are operating, he'll continue to depend on them to get the material he needs.
Israel imposed a wide-ranging embargo on Gaza in 2007, after the militant Hamas movement seized control of the coastal strip. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and has claimed responsibility for many terrorist attacks in the Jewish state. Israeli officials say they banned construction material because they feared Hamas would use the goods to build bunkers and tunnels.
Guy Inbar is a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry in the department of coordination with the Palestinian territories. He says that materials which are deemed dual use, or which could be used by militant groups, are still banned from Gaza.
GUY INBAR: These new steps are especially for the private sector for the population in Gaza, in order to distinct between the civilian population and the Hamas terrorist.
FRENKEL: Inbar says that the Defense Ministry decided to allow the new goods into Gaza due to the short-term success of the cease-fire agreement with Hamas. Egyptian mediators helped Israeli and Hamas officials reach that accord in November, after an eight-day conflict that left 133 Palestinians and six Israelis dead.
Inbar says there is ongoing dialogue through Egyptian mediators; and that if the quiet prevails, Israel will continue to increase the flow of goods to Gaza.
INBAR: If the calm will continue, Israel will consider to approve more measures and more steps.
FRENKEL: Sari Bashi, executive director of the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement in Tel Aviv, says allowing some construction materials into Gaza is a great step, because it shows that Israel is looking to remove restrictions that don't raise security concerns. But the Israeli activist says much more could be done.
SARI BASHI: People in Gaza should be able to build not just buildings, but also an economy and their professional aspirations. And to do that, they certainly need to be able to bring construction materials in. But people in Gaza also need to be able to travel and market goods, so that they can invest in their own economic and social future.
FRENKEL: She says that the last five years have created severe shortages across Gaza that will take years to overcome.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.