Israel has started allowing long-banned building materials into the Gaza Strip, its first key concession to the Palestinian territory's ruling Hamas movement under the ceasefire that ended eight days of fighting last month, the military said Monday.
The military says the shipments will continue so long as the border remains quiet. But a Hamas figure said the amount sent so far is "cosmetic," and Gaza economists say it would take years of round-the-clock shipments to even make a dent in the gap left by five years of blockade.
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Israel imposed a wide-ranging embargo on Gaza after Hamas seized it in 2007. Building materials like cement, gravel and metal rods were largely banned, as Israel argued they could be used to make fortifications and weapons to attack the Jewish state.
The military says it began allowing shipments of gravel to Gaza's private sector on Sunday because the Israeli attacks on Hamas' military operations in November cowed the terror group into quiet.
After the November hostilities, Israel and Hamas began indirect, Egyptian-led talks over new border arrangements. The Islamist group wants Israel to lift what remains of a sweeping land and naval embargo it imposed after the Hamas takeover. In return, Israel demands an end to arms smuggling into Gaza.
With limited exceptions, Israel had blocked construction materials from entering Gaza.
"Now we're talking about a permanent easing," said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman, adding that 20 truckloads a day could enter Gaza, depending on Palestinian demand. Other concessions could follow, he said.
"The longer the calm persists, the more we'll weigh additional easings of restrictions that will benefit the private sector," he said.
Israel recently authorized the entry of 60 trucks and buses for the first time since Hamas' 2007 Gaza takeover, though there are conflicting reports on whether vehicles have actually gone through.
Another major concession the Gazans seek would be a lifting of a near-ban on exports from the impoverished territory. Exports, especially to the West Bank, the Palestinian territory on the opposite side of Israel, once formed the backbone of Gaza's economy.
Exports might be expanded, Inbar said, "depending on the continuation of the calm."
Critics contend the export ban punishes ordinary Gazans instead of pressuring Hamas, hurting four in five Gaza factories and contributing heavily to an unemployment rate of about one-third of the work force. Some 80% of Gaza's 1.6 million people rely on UN handouts.
Israel lifted its restrictions on consumer goods entering Gaza overland after a deadly Israeli naval raid on a blockade-busting flotilla in 2010 drew international attention to the Israeli embargo. But the blockade on construction materials remained intact, save for shipments used to build UN schools and a pilot project of shipments to the private sector a year ago.
"The Israelis promised to undertake further measures to alleviate the difficult economic situation in Gaza as a result of the calm," said Palestinian crossing official Raed Fattouh in Gaza, confirming that the Israelis had agreed to send in 20 trucks of gravel daily, five days a week. "This move had been expected as part of the deal."
Israel has not eased its naval blockade of the territory, which it says is imperative to keep weapons from being smuggled into Gaza by sea.
Egypt, which had joined the Israeli blockade, similarly eased its own restrictions on Saturday, allowing in 1,400 tons of gravel paid for by Qatar. The oil-rich emirate recently pledged $425 million to build housing, schools, a hospital and roads in Gaza as part of its attempt to build its influence in Palestinian politics and its power in the region, at the expense of regional rival Iran, Hamas' longtime patron.
Shipments from Egypt are expected to be ramped up to 4,000 tons daily, said Yassir al Shanti, Gaza's deputy minister of housing and public works. He estimated Gaza needs up to 3 million tons of gravel to build roads and that the Qatar-funded projects need more than 1 million tons.
The shipments from Egypt were launched following consultation with Israeli officials, who were in Cairo Thursday to discuss the ceasefire and other matters, an Egyptian official said last week.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's longtime ally, Egypt had poor relations with Hamas, and teamed up with Israel to blockade Gaza. Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, comes from Hamas' parent group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and has vowed not to abandon the Palestinians. But he is moving cautiously, in part to avoid alienating Cairo's biggest patron, the United States.
Palestinian economist Mouin Rajab said the new shipments would go only a small way to meet the needs Gaza has accumulated throughout six years of blockade, during which time Hamas and Israel warred twice.
"Gaza needs more than what Israel has allowed and what Egypt has promised to allow. We are talking about six years of blockade, no real economy and no projects in addition to what Gaza lost during two wars in 2009 and 2012."
"This amount which has been sent by the Israelis still is cosmetic," a Hamas government official in Gaza said. "Israel, according to the understanding, should allow more building materials into Gaza as part of the understandings reached by Cairo. We are waiting and we told the Egyptians that."
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the understandings.
Reconstruction since the 2009 fighting has been slow, in large part because of the blockades. To make up the shortage, a bustling smuggling industry through underground tunnels along the Egyptian border has sprung up. While prices for key construction goods have come down, they still remain expensive for the majority of Gaza's 1.6 million people, 80% of whom rely on UN handouts.
Israel and Hamas shun each other, so Egypt is mediating the new border arrangements. A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose confidential contacts, said a Hamas delegation arrived Sunday night in Cairo to meet with Egyptian security officials for a second round of talks on the border arrangements.