Government spokesmen struggled Thursday to keep the security cabinet’s decision to ease up on the land blockade of Gaza from looking like an Israeli capitulation, saying the process of relaxing restrictions on Gaza had started months ago. World leaders from the US and the EU welcomed the move.

But even as the security cabinet eased up on what would be allowed into Gaza through the land crossings, it reiterated that the naval blockade would remain in place, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak warning Beirut about boats that will reportedly set sail for Gaza from Lebanon.

“I am saying clearly to the Lebanese government,” Barak said in a statement, “you are responsible for vessels leaving your ports with the clear intention of trying to block the naval blockade of Gaza.”

Barak, reflecting serious concern about the boats that Israel has linked to Hizbullah activists, said Lebanon had a responsibility to prevent the boats from being loaded with arms and ammunition, “which could lead to a violent and dangerous confrontation in the event that the boat refuses to come to Ashdod.”

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The security cabinet, which met Thursday for the second time in two days to discuss relaxing the restrictions on Gaza, issued a statement saying it agreed to “liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza; expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision; [and] continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel.”

A statement issued after the meeting said the cabinet would decide in the “coming days on additional steps to implement this policy.”

Among the steps expected to be enacted are drawing up a list of goods that are prohibited because of security concerns – rather than the current situation in which only goods on a permitted list are allowed in – and developing a mechanism to ensure that dual-use material is allowed into Gaza only for earmarked projects under the auspices of the UN, the Quartet or a recognized international organization.

According to Barak, the intention of the decision is to allow more goods into Gaza, but always only after an Israeli search of the cargo to ensure that it does not include “weapons, ammunition or materiel that can aid in fighting.”

Barak said the naval blockade would remain in place to ensure that missiles, rockets and other arms are not brought there, and that all ships that wanted to bring goods into Gaza would have to do so via the Ashdod Port, where they could be checked by Israel, as is the case for ships bringing goods destined for Ramallah.

Nevertheless, the security cabinet decision marked a dramatic change in Israel’s policy, in place for the past three years, regarding what is and is not allowed into Gaza.

This policy was initiated by Ehud Olmert’s government in 2007, in light of continued firing of Kassam rockets on Sderot and western Negev communities. The cabinet at the time declared Gaza a “hostile territory” under Hamas’s control. The objective of the policy was widely perceived to be to underline the difference between life in Gaza under Hamas and life in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, with the hope that this would lead to domestic pressure on Hamas – and also that it would soften up Hamas in the negotiations over kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.

The policy, however, has been roundly criticized by both the US and EU as counterproductive, and as being responsible for strengthening – not weakening – Hamas’s control over Gaza.

One official in the Prime Minister’s Office, trying to downplay the impression that the change in policy was a result of intense pressure that has come to bear on Israel since the May 31 raid on the Mavi Marmara, said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had initiated a policy review of Gaza immediately after assuming office last year, and that over the past six months, both the types of goods and the quantity of goods allowed into Gaza had increased.

“Today’s decision is ultimately an extension of that policy,” the official said. “Israel does not have a problem with civilian goods reaching Gaza, but only war materiels and dual-use items.”

A government official described the change in policy by saying that “policy is not dogma, and it must reflect political reality.”

The implication was that the political reality Israel now faces was significantly different than what it was when the Olmert government initiated the policy.

Asked what Israel was getting in return for the change of policy, the official said there was strong international support for Israel’s position on keeping arms from reaching Gaza, even though there was a great deal of international criticism over barring civilian goods. The hope was that by removing the “distraction” over the civilian goods, Israel would strengthen international legitimacy for the naval blockade and security procedures needed to keep weapons and ammunition out of Gaza.

President Barack Obama's chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said Israel's decision Thursday to allow all foods and some construction materials into the Gaza Strip was a "step in the right direction."

Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who has discussed the matter with Netanyahu three times over the last 10 days, welcomed the change of policy, saying it was an important step toward “easing the lives of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Blair released a statement saying, “Israel has the clear right to defend itself and protect its security. The best way to do this is to ensure that weapons cannot reach Gaza, whilst allowing into Gaza the items of ordinary daily life, including materials for the construction of homes, infrastructure and services as the UN have asked, and permitting legitimate business to revive. The decision to allow foodstuffs and household items is a good start.”

He said the Quartet would continue its discussions with Israel to “flesh out” the new policy.

Blair also called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Schalit, “whose ongoing detention is totally unjustified.”

The security cabinet, in its statement Thursday, said Israel “expects the international community to work toward the immediate release” of Schalit.

On Friday, the European Union’s high representative Catherine Ashton plans to hold a working meeting in Brussels to explore the revival and expansion of the EU’s past role as a monitoring body regarding goods heading into Gaza.

On Thursday, on the margins of a European Council meeting, she said, “We’ve offered to Israel support, of course, linked to the Palestinian Authority.”

She added, “I look with great interest at what the Israeli government has said, and this is an ‘in principle’ statement at this stage.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos said Israel was “moving in the right direction,” and stated the EU’s readiness to work with the parties involved.

In a statement released to the press by the Spanish EU presidency, Moratinos said that the EU wanted “a European presence at crossing points into Gaza to facilitate the arrival of all kinds of goods and individuals.”

At the same time, it will be a guarantee to Israel of “due vigilance and control to ensure that there is no arms smuggling or anything which could be detrimental to the security of the region,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped the cabinet’s decision was a real step toward meeting needs in Gaza.

He asked UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry, who returned to Jerusalem Thursday after briefing the UN Security Council in New York, to immediately engage the Israeli government to learn more about the decision.

Ban said the UN “continues to seek a fundamental change in policy as agreed by the Quartet, so that humanitarian assistance, commercial goods and people are able to flow through functioning open crossings, and so that reconstruction can take place.”

Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha – The Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, told The Jerusalem Post that while she was reassured that paper was no longer considered a security risk, the cabinet’s decision fell far short of what was needed for the people living in Gaza.

Based on her understanding of the cabinet decision, she said, food items for consumption would be allowed in, as well as bedding, towels, children’s toys and stationery.

However, what the people in Gaza needed, she said, was a flow of goods at a level that would allow their factories to resume the production of goods.

The events of the past week have demonstrated the need for a complete cancellation of the punitive restrictions, said Bashi, adding that she feared that Thursday’s development was merely a “cosmetic change.”

Additional reporting was provided by the Associated Press.

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