Israel Eases Import Restrictions on Gaza to Allow More Food, Ayalon Says

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Daniel Ayalon, said the government is easing its import restrictions on the Gaza Strip to allow in more types of food.

“We are correcting it,” Ayalon said in an interview aired today on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program. “There is no reason not to have a full array of food to the Gazans and we are making sure this will be the case,” Ayalon said according to a transcript.

Israel’s sea and ground blockade of Gaza has drawn international criticism since the Israeli military staged a commando raid May 31 on a flotilla of ships bringing humanitarian aid supplies to the Hamas-ruled territory, in which nine Turkish activists were killed. Palestinians say Israel’s restrictions on imports have created a humanitarian crisis, while Israel says that imports like construction materials can be used to build rockets, bunkers or bombs.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in an interview today that a partial lifting of the blockade might be imminent.

The current situation in Gaza is “untenable” and the solution is to “keep arms out and let the rest” in terms of humanitarian aid get through, Blair, now a United Nations envoy for the Middle East, told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Quantity, Diversity

Israel in recent months “has taken decisions to both expand the quantity of goods arriving in the Gaza Strip as well as the diversity of goods entering the Gaza Strip,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “These policies will continue.”

In Washington, Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment on Blair’s remarks.

A Palestinian official who supervises aid shipments into Gaza said Israel today started allowing in ketchup, mayonnaise, sewing needles and thread. Last week, Gazans were allowed to resume importing soft drinks, fruit juice, spices and potato chips, said Raed Fatouh, the Palestinian Authority’s liaison officer at the Kerem Shalom crossing.

An Israeli security official confirmed last week’s list and said talks to permit in those goods had been going on for several weeks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment on the matter and was not immediately available to comment on today’s items.

Smuggled Arms

“The primary issue here is the blockade in order to prevent the Hamas from rearming itself to the teeth,” Ayalon said. “They get all these smuggled arms from Iran and Hezbollah and Syria.”

Ayalon also said that some 75 people among the passengers aboard the vessel on which the violence took place, were “mercenaries” who prepared themselves to ambush the Israeli commandos when they boarded the ship from helicopters. He said each was found to be carrying $10,000 when taken into Israeli custody and “were associated with al-Qaeda and other terror organizations.” He said they were “graduates” of Afghanistan or Iraq.

Israel says that on May 31 its soldiers were attacked with knives and clubs and seven were wounded, including by gunfire after people aboard one of the ships managed to grab Israeli firearms.

Activists have said they threw the firearms into the sea and that the Israelis instigated the violence. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of carrying out a massacre.

Warnings

Israel has said it issued numerous warnings to the Gaza- bound flotilla asking it to change course for the port of Ashdod and unload there, before it seized the vessels.

The other five vessels, as well as a separate boat that arrived June 5, were taken over peacefully.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said international participation would boost the credibility of Israel’s investigation into the raid.

“An international component would strengthen the investigation and certainly buttress its credibility in the eyes of the international community,” Rice said today on Fox News Sunday. “We’ve had discussions with Israel as to how and whether they might go about doing that.”

Impartial Investigation

She said the U.S. believes Israel can conduct a “credible and impartial” investigation of the May 31 incident.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Republican Leader John Boehner, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said they supported Israel’s actions.

“It’s pretty clear to many of us who’ve looked into this that this last ship was intended to be a problem, intended to cause a conflict,” said Boehner of Ohio.

Israel has been blockading Gaza since Hamas ousted forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and seized full control in June 2007, after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year.

Hamas’s charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Hamas leaders say they will renounce violence when Israel withdraws from territory occupied in 1967 and allows Palestinians to return to areas in Israel from which they fled in 1948.

Israel launched a military operation in Gaza in December 2008, which it said was aimed at stopping the firing of rockets into its territory. More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the three-week offensive that ended Jan. 18, 2009. Since then, more than 400 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, killing one foreign worker last March, the Israeli army said.

Israel says its blockade of Gaza is legal because it is in “a state of armed conflict” with Hamas. Some countries, such as Turkey, dispute the legality of the blockade.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at jferziger@bloomberg.net;

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