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Israel may ease Gaza blockade

| June 17, 2010 9:00 PM

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel is likely to significantly ease the land blockade of Gaza in coming days in an effort to blunt the international outcry over its deadly raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, officials said Wednesday.

Israel has been scrambling to find ways to ease the embargo and its own growing international isolation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened senior ministers and security officials to discuss changes but they failed to reach a decision. They are now expected to vote today, said a meeting participant speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were closed.

Officials said Israel is expected to greatly ease what gets into Gaza through land crossings. However, the naval blockade that was at the root of the May 31 raid will remain intact because Israel wants to ensure weapons can't be shipped into Gaza. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the policy has not been approved.

For the most part, only basic humanitarian goods have been allowed into Gaza for the past three years. Items including metal, glass and cement are barred because Israel fears militants could use those to build weapons or fortifications. But these goods are badly needed to rebuild homes and businesses after Israel's brief war with Gaza last year.

Israel will now come up with a shorter list of restricted goods to allow in some materials desperately needed by civilians, the officials said.

Under the new guidelines, items such as cement and steel will be allowed in to an undetermined extent in coordination with the United Nations, but won't be freely available to private citizens, the officials said. Restrictions on things like school supplies, books, computers and toys are expected to be lifted.

Such an easing would bring some relief to Gaza. But it was not clear whether there would be any change on some of the most damaging aspects of the blockade - bans on exports and raw materials used in industrial production.

"It would be nice for Gaza residents to be able to receive previously banned items such as paper, toys and computers," said Sari Bashi, an Israeli activist whose Gisha group has been fighting to open Gaza's borders. "But Gaza residents need to be able to receive raw materials in order to engage in productive, dignified work."

Israel, with Egypt's cooperation, has blockaded Gaza by land and sea ever since Hamas militants seized control in 2007.

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