GAZA (Reuters) - Israel is easing its Gaza embargo to allow snack food and drinks into the Palestinian enclave, Palestinian officials said Wednesday, following an international outcry over Israel’s raid on an aid flotilla.
Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, said the territory needs cement, banned by Israel and essential for reconstruction after a December 2008-January 2009 war, not soft drinks.
An Israeli official said the new product list, announced hours before U.S. President Barack Obama hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, was unrelated to Israel’s May 31 takeover of the convoy that challenged its Gaza blockade.
The talks between Obama and Abbas were expected to focus on ways to ease the embargo, which has drawn mounting international criticism since Israeli commandos, who met violent resistance on a Turkish-flagged ship, killed nine pro-Palestinian activists.
In joint remarks, Obama said the situation in Gaza was unsustainable and Abbas repeated his call to end the blockade.
Obama said the United States was providing $400 million in new aid for the Palestinians.
The Palestinian officials, based in the West Bank, said that as of next week, Israel will allow a wider variety of food, such as potato crisps, biscuits, canned fruit and packaged humous, as well as soft drinks and juice, into the Gaza Strip.
“They will send the first course. We are waiting for the main course,” Palestinian Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh said in Ramallah. “We are waiting for this unjust siege to end.”
Israel says its blockade of Gaza is necessary to choke off weapons supplies to Hamas, which is opposed to Abbas’s peace efforts with the Jewish state.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, asked Wednesday about Israel’s policy, said Hamas has used humanitarian donations to strengthen its military capabilities in Gaza.
“Construction materials haven’t gone for housing, they’ve gone for bunkers,” Gates said on the program Frost Over the World to be broadcast on Al Jazeera’s English-language channel.
Hamas played down the impact of the new Israeli product list.
“We have three factories that make carbonated drinks. They say they want to allow in potato chips, but we have factories that produce more than enough to meet Gaza’s needs,” said Ziyad al-Zaza, economic and trade minister in Hamas’s Gaza-based government.
“We are looking for a true, real lifting of the blockade ... the import of raw materials for industry and construction materials for the reconstruction of Gaza,” he said.
The United Nations says the Israeli blockade has caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, an allegation Israel denies.
Israel’s ban on cement imports into the territory has limited efforts to rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed or damaged in a three-week war it launched in December 2008 with the stated aim of curbing cross-border rocket fire.
Israeli officials have said Hamas could use cement to build bunkers and other military installations.
Asked about the new list of Israeli-approved products, the Israeli government official said: “Over the last six months, Israel has increased the volume of goods going into Gaza and their variety. That policy is continuing.”
A variety of goods comes into the Gaza Strip from neighboring Egypt via smuggling tunnels. Egypt, which largely closed its Gaza border after the Hamas takeover, reopened the frontier indefinitely following the Israeli naval raid.
Commenting on the blockade, an Israeli security source said Israel aimed to remove all restrictions on imported food items for Gaza within a few weeks and noted that jam and several other products were approved recently.
“This has nothing to do with the flotilla,” the source said, making no mention of whether Israel might expand the list to include reconstruction materials.
Israeli authorities said that last week, Israel transferred 12,413 tons of humanitarian aid through Gaza border crossings.
The shipments included 994,000 liters of fuel for Gaza’s power station, 748 tons of cooking gas and eight truckloads of medicine and medical equipment, according to an Israeli list.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Additional reporting Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem