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Israel softens Gaza Strip ban

| June 10, 2010 9:00 PM

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel took a first step Wednesday to temper the uproar caused by its deadly high-seas raid on a blockade-busting flotilla by allowing in potato chips, cookies, spices and other previously banned food items into the Gaza Strip.

But the things Gazans need most - cement, steel and other materials to rebuild their war-ravaged territory - are still mostly banned, and critics denounced the move as insignificant. President Barack Obama called for a new approach on the blockade.

Instead of easing international criticism of Israel following the May 31 raid that killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, Wednesday's decision appeared to focus even more attention on its three-year-old blockade of impoverished Gaza and the seemingly arbitrary decision-making about which goods are allowed in.

After meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, Obama said the Mideast situation is "unsustainable." He called the flotilla clash a "tragedy" and said a "better approach" is needed in Gaza. He called for a "new conceptual framework" for Israel's blockade.

Maxwel Gaylard, the U.N.'s senior humanitarian official in the Palestinian territories, said Israel's move was insufficient.

"A modest expansion of the restrictive list of goods allowed into Gaza falls well short of what is needed. We need a fundamental change and an opening of crossings for commercial goods."

Israel and Egypt have been enforcing an embargo on Gaza, banning all exports and allowing in only basic humanitarian and consumer items, since the territory was violently overrun by Hamas militants in 2007. The blockade has created a flourishing smuggling trade through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border but has done little to loosen Hamas' hold on power.

Facing growing international criticism over its botched raid and the painful price Gaza's 1.5 million residents are paying for the blockade, Israel has been attempting to show some flexibility.

Palestinian official Raed Fattouh, who coordinates the flow of goods into Gaza with Israel, said soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy were now permitted. He said Israel rebuffed Palestinian requests for construction goods, raw materials for factories to operate and medical devices.

Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal policymaking, said their goal in allowing more goods into Gaza was to defuse pressure for an international investigation of the sea raid. The clashes broke out after Israeli naval commandos boarded one of six ships on the flotilla carrying goods for Gaza, and some of the hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists on board attacked them with pipes and other makeshift weapons.

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