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Israel eases blockade, approves more Gaza exports

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JERUSALEM — Israel decided Wednesday to allow increased exports from the Gaza Strip, further easing its blockade of the territory run by the militant Palestinian Hamas group.

Israel's Security Cabinet said its decision would expand economic activity for ordinary Gazans. Critics of the blockade welcomed the decision as a first step but said more was needed to fully resuscitate Gaza businesses.

Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser said Israel wishes to "ease the pressure on the population in Gaza that is under Hamas' oppressive and terrorist rule."

Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power there in June 2007. Israel says the blockade keeps Hamas from rearming, while critics say it hurts ordinary people in the seaside territory.

Up to now, Israel allowed only shipments of strawberries and flowers to be exported from Gaza. Under the new regulations, Palestinians will be able to export furniture, textiles and agricultural products, said Israeli military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar. He said the new exports to the West Bank and abroad would be allowed gradually, and he expected shipments to begin soon.

The number of trucks bringing goods into Gaza will also increase by the middle of next year, Inbar said. Some 250 trucks cross into Gaza daily, and Israel will increase that number to 400, he said.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents the "Quartet" of international Mideast peacemakers, welcomed the decision, saying that exports are "key for the revitalization of Gaza's economy and job creation" and can help strengthen local businessmen.

Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the Israeli general who controls access to Gaza, told The Associated Press in October that he was looking for a way to permit exports while preventing Hamas from getting credit for any progress.

Textiles, agriculture and furniture represent Gaza's main industries, and they would greatly benefit from the new export rules, Gaza-based economist Omar Shaban said.

Two years before the blockade began, Gaza's sewing and textile industry alone was estimated at $39 million, and about 70 percent of textile goods were exported, according to Gaza's Textile Industry Association. Today, only 1,500 people work in the industry, compared to 37,000 workers 10 years ago.

Much of their machinery is damaged or outdated now, and industrialists need spare parts still banned by Israel, Shaban said.

Israel began easing the blockade in June after Israeli commandoes carried out a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, but there are still tight restrictions on the flow of key construction materials. Israel's military approves their transfer on a case-by-case basis and only for building projects supervised by international aid groups, to prevent Hamas from using the materials for military purposes.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel's decision to allow more exports is "deceiving" because Israel still prevents raw materials from reaching Gaza businesses. "It's another Israeli maneuver to give the impression that they are easing the blockade imposed on Gaza," Abu Zuhri said.

Before the blockade dealt a blow to Gaza's industry, much of its exports were to Israel and the West Bank. The new regulations do not allow goods to reach the Israeli market. Sari Bashi of the Israeli human rights group Gisha said transferring goods to Israel is critical to economic recovery for Gaza.

In violence early Wednesday, Israeli aircraft attacked a target in southern Gaza in retaliation for rocket fire at Israel the day before, the military said. Palestinians said an abandoned house and a chicken farm were destroyed. No one was hurt.