JERUSALEM // Israel's security cabinet is meeting today to reportedly consider an international proposal for significantly easing its Gaza blockade, after weeks of global pressure to scrap the measure. The 15-member body was expected to vote on a proposal put together over several weeks of intense consultations between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mideast Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the Haaretz daily reported.
The security cabinet began meeting early today, a government official confirmed, for what was understood to be a debate on "matters related to Gaza". If approved, the "Blair-Netanyahu understandings" would see Israel adopt a new approach to those goods which have been kept out of Gaza since the blockade was imposed in 2006, Haaretz and other media outlets reported. Under the new proposal, thrashed out in three face-to-face sessions with Mr Blair as well as multiple telephone calls, Israel would allow in everything - except for items on a "blacklist," the paper said.
It would also allow for the entry of much-needed building materials for UN-sponsored construction projects. And it would see Israel agreeing to examine a proposal for stationing EU and Palestinian Authority inspectors at the border to inspect incoming goods, Haaretz said. Currently thousands of products - some as banal as toilet paper and ginger - are listed by Israel as constituting a 'security' risk and therefore are prevented from reaching Gaza.
The list also includes products such as construction materials, which Israel fears could be used for building rockets, such as metal piping and cement, which could be used for building bunkers. Israeli media said the proposal was widely expected to be approved by the security cabinet, with Mr Blair telling Haaretz it was "a very important step." "It will allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there," he said.
"The policy in Gaza should be to isolate the extremists but to help the people." Mr Blair told the paper the ultimate aim was to eradicate the need for smuggling through the cross-border network of tunnels running under Gaza's southern border with Egypt, through which thousands of goods are brought daily and sold at hugely inflated prices. However, army radio said Mr Netanyahu was expected to stress the naval blockade of Gaza would remain in place - a measure he said was crucial for preventing Gaza from "turning into an Iranian port" through which arms would flow freely.
Earlier this week, a European Union diplomat meeting regional foreign ministers in Luxembourg had said Israel was preparing to ease the blockade significantly. "The indications we are getting from Israel is that they are willing to go from a positive to a negative list," he said, explaining it would mean a change from a list of "permitted goods" with everything else banned, to a list of "banned goods" with everything else allowed in.
Israel has been facing mounting pressure to end its blockade of Gaza imposed in 2006 after militants there seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid. International pressure over the siege on Gaza has increased hugely in recent weeks following last month's deadly raid by Israeli navy seals on a foreign aid flotilla trying to run the Gaza blockade, which killed Turkish activists. As the government mulled easing the blockade, the Israeli committee for investigating the botched naval operation - known as the Tirkel Commission - was on Wednesday to begin its probe, media reports said.
The three-man committee, whose work will be overseen by two foreign observers, will look into the legal aspects of the operation in a move dismissed as insufficient by both Turkey and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. *AFP