Joel Greenberg
The Washington Post
July 1, 2010 - 12:00am

Israel's first steps toward easing its blockade of the Gaza Strip were welcomed Wednesday by the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East as he visited this crossing where goods are transferred to the Palestinian territory.

Under intense international pressure after a deadly raid on an aid flotilla headed for Gaza, Israel formally announced June 20 that it would relax the blockade. Israeli officials here were keen to show George J. Mitchell, who is mediating another round of indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, that steps have already been taken to increase the supply of goods to the coastal strip, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas.

Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the Israeli Defense Ministry's top official handling ties with the Palestinian territories, told Mitchell that since the decision to ease the embargo, the number of trucks moving goods through Kerem Shalom, the main cargo crossing to Gaza, has increased 30 percent. A total of 128 trucks carrying goods, fuel and cooking gas passed through Kerem Shalom on Wednesday, up from about 90 each day before the blockade was eased, army officials said. Dangot told Mitchell of plans to increase the flow to 250 trucks a day..Before the blockade, about 400 trucks of supplies moved into Gaza daily.

The general said he had been meeting with international aid groups to coordinate the transfer of materials for sewage and construction projects in Gaza. Israel has approved entry of such supplies for projects supervised by international organizations after previously barring shipments of cement, which it said Hamas could use to build bunkers.

Building materials are badly needed in Gaza to repair destruction caused by an Israeli offensive there 18 months ago in response to persistent rocket attacks.

Trucks lined up at Kerem Shalom on Wednesday carried glass kitchenware, baked goods and cables, and drivers said they were now bringing in chocolates, soft drinks, clothing and shoes that had been barred in the past. Military officials said home appliances, such as refrigerators and microwave ovens, were also being allowed in.

"I saw firsthand today that progress is being made," Mitchell said after touring the crossing. "As President Obama said, the situation in Gaza was unsustainable and demanded fundamental change. We welcome these changes. As implementation proceeds, these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza."

The easing of the blockade has so far not allowed in raw materials for industrial and food production, nor has it permitted exports or free movement of people out of the territory. A naval blockade also remains in place, a measure Israel says is necessary to prevent arms smuggling by sea.

"Israel has legitimate security concerns," Mitchell said. "The United States strongly reaffirms Israel's right to self-defense, and we support international efforts to prevent the trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza."

Israel first imposed a blockade on Gaza after the capture of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit by militants from Hamas and allied groups in a cross-border raid in June 2006. The blockade was tightened after Hamas seized power in Gaza a year later.

Noting that Shalit was taken from an army post near Kerem Shalom, Mitchell called his continued captivity after four years "deplorable and unacceptable."

"We condemn this detention," Mitchell said. "We also condemn the inhumane conditions in which he is held."

Shalit's parents, accompanied by thousands of supporters, are staging a 12-day march to Jerusalem to press the government to agree to a prisoner exchange that would secure his release.


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