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Israel to Triple Capacity at Gaza Strip Crossing, Ayalon Says

Israel plans to expand the Kerem Shalom crossing to almost triple its capacity to handle goods entering the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon.

“The only bottleneck is the Palestinian side, to the extent that they do what they need to do as far as their equipment and infrastructure,” Ayalon told journalists at the crossing, one of two used for the transfer of goods between Israel and the Palestinian enclave.

In less than a month, shipments will return to the “quantities and qualities” seen before 2007, when Israel imposed a blockade of Gaza, he said today. The number of trucks entering Gaza will be increased to 450 daily from 160, which was yesterday’s tally, he said.

Israel has been under increased international pressure to relax the blockade since its May 31 commando raid on a flotilla of aid ships bound for the territory left nine Turkish citizens dead on one of the vessels. The Israeli government said last month that it will loosen its road blockade so that all food will be let in and only weapons and items that have a military use are kept out. A naval embargo remains in place.

“The new Israeli measures at the crossing of Kerem Shalom are just an Israeli media maneuver to mislead international public opinion and thwart all the efforts that were exerted in order to end the siege.” Yousef Rezqa, an adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, said in a telephone interview.

Struggle With Fatah

Israel closed its border with Gaza and restricted imports after Hamas seized full control of the coastal strip in 2007 following a violent struggle with the secular Fatah movement, once its partner in a power-sharing agreement.

Israel says its restrictions are necessary to prevent arms smuggling into a territory ruled by Hamas, which refuses to recognize the Jewish state or any agreements signed with it. Only strawberries, flowers and containers of cooking gas are allowed to be exported from Gaza, said Ami Shaked, Kerem Shalom’s director.

“Israel must stop talking about numbers and deal with the urgent needs of the population,” said Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank. The focus must be on the export of Gaza-made products and the import of essentials, while Palestinian Authority officials and international inspectors should be present at the crossings, he said in a phone interview.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International say Israel’s embargo has devastated local industries and caused widespread suffering. Israeli officials have said there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Fewer Products

The blockade had limited imports into Gaza to no more than 150 products, according to Raed Fattouh, the Palestinian Authority’s liaison officer at Kerem Shalom. Before the restrictions, some 8,000 products flowed into Gaza, he said.

Israel’s expansion of Kerem Shalom is intended to eventually allow the closing of the northern Karni crossing, which Ayalon said was the harder of the two to defend because it is adjacent to a densely populated Gaza area. “It will also better streamline the process if we move goods from one place,” he said.

Waiting to enter Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing today were fuel tankers and trucks loaded with crates of timber, diapers, rolls of twine, and plastic spoons and straws.

Israel fought a three-week war in Gaza starting in December 2008 that it said was meant to stop Hamas and other militant groups from firing rockets into its territory. More than 400 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the end of the operation, killing a foreign worker, the army said.

Home Destroyed

Israeli bombing and ground operations during the war destroyed more than 3,000 homes across Gaza, the United Nations said, and Israel’s restrictions on construction materials have prevented Palestinians from being able to rebuild. Israel’s army says Hamas has used materials such as cement and iron pipes to build rockets and bunkers.

Peace talks with the Palestinian Authority stalled with the outset of the fighting. Under U.S. mediation, indirect negotiations were started in May.

Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel. 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.

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