JERUSALEM – Israel agreed Thursday to ease its three-year-old land blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, hoping to quell international outrage over its deadly raid on a flotilla bound for the Palestinian territory.
In one of the major changes, Israel will allow in more desperately needed construction materials for civilian projects, provided those projects are carried out under international supervision, government and military officials said. Israel has barely allowed in goods such as cement and steel, fearing Hamas militants could use them to build weapons and fortifications. The policy has prevented rebuilding thousands of homes and other buildings damaged in Israel's war with Hamas last year.
An Israeli military official told The Associated Press all foods would be allowed in to the impoverished territory, effective immediately. Authorities had previously allowed a short and constantly changing list of foods in, but the list has been growing incrementally in recent months.
Israel is maintaining its naval blockade intended to keep weapons shipments out of the hands of Hamas.
"This is a step in the right direction," said Cristina Galach, spokeswoman for the European Union presidency.
However, Hamas was not satisfied.
"We want a real lifting of the siege, not window-dressing," said Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil.
The easing is evidence of the intense pressure Israeli leaders felt after an international outcry over the raid on a blockade-busting flotilla on May 31. Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists and both sides claimed they acted in self-defense.
Israel imposed the blockade in 2007 after Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction, violently seized control of Gaza. For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed in for a population of 1.5 million. Egypt has cooperated by blockading its land border with Gaza, but it opened it days after the flotilla raid to allow thousands of Palestinians to leave.
Israel's shift came just one week after President Barack Obama, the country's most important ally, said the blockade was unsustainable and called for scaling it back dramatically. Israel made the decision after extensive consultations with European and American officials.
"This morning, the government of Israel took decisions to liberalize the system under which civilian goods may enter the Gaza Strip, to expand materials for projects inside Gaza which are under international supervision," government spokesman Mark Regev said.
"But of course we must remain with the security procedures that prevent the import into Gaza of weapons and war materials that strengthen the Hamas military machine," he said, indicating the naval blockade would remain in force.