December 8, 2010 - 1:00am

Israel has allowed the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to export flowers through Israeli territory, in addition to strawberries it permitted earlier, officials said on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement Israel's security cabinet had approved an "additional easing of restrictions to permit and expansion of commercial exports from the Gaza Strip," without giving details.

Palestinian officials in Gaza said three truckloads of flowers and strawberries destined for Europe had been exported on Tuesday and four more mixed loads would head out on Wednesday. Strawberry exports had been relaunched last month.

More than half of Gaza's population relies on U.N. food aid, and reviving exports could partly redress economic reverses of the past few years. Gaza's exports fell to $20,000 in 2007, and there was no significant export trade in 2008.

Palestinians hope to export up to a 1000 tonnes of strawberries to Europe this year and 30 million flowers.

Israel has largely blockaded the Islamist-ruled territory citing security concerns, and in an effort to weaken Iranian-backed Hamas, which wrested control there from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement in 2007.

Israel accuses Hamas of failing to rein in militants firing rockets and mortars at southern Israeli towns.

Some restrictions on Gaza's borders have been relaxed since a world outcry in May over Israel's killing of nine Turkish activists when commandoes intercepted an aid flotilla to enforce a naval blockade of Gaza.

At that time Israel permitted Palestinians in Gaza to import more supplies but began to permit exports a month ago, partly in response to European calls to help Gaza's struggling economy and ease conditions for 1.5 million Palestinians living there.

The 27-nation European Union spends millions each year to support the private sector in Gaza via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the Palestinian Authority.


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