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Israel to ease Gaza blockade


Tel Aviv : Israel is to loosen its blockade of the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Thursday, at the end of a two days of discussions by the inner cabinet on the matter.

Under the new policy, Israel will let more “civilian goods” enter the salient and expand the amount of materials used for civilian projects being carried out under international supervision, a statement by Netanyahu’s office said.

At the same time, however, existing restrictions aimed at preventing weapons from entering the Strip will remain in place.

The cabinet is to meet in the coming days to decide on additional steps, the statement said, and called on foreign governments to work toward the “immediate” release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held hostage in the Strip for the past four years.

Israel imposed its blockade on the Strip in 2006, after militants from the enclave launched am early-morning cross-border raid in which they snatched Shalit.

Hamas, which is holding the soldier, demands the release of 1,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel, in return for him. Negotiations to secure a swap have so far proved fruitless.

The blockade was significantly tightened in June 2007, when, in a week of bloody violence, Hamas militants routed security personnel loyal to the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas, and seized full control of the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas takeover also led Egypt to shut the Rafah border crossing point with the Sinai, Gaza’s sole entry and exit point which does not pass through israeli territory.

Calls for the blockade to be eased, or abandoned completely, have increased significantly since the beginning of the month, when Israel seized six ships carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists to the salient.

The takeover of one of the ships turned violent, leaving nine activists dead and bringing a wave of international condemnation on the Jewish state.