The Israeli government announced some changes to its widely condemned blockade of Gaza last week. It said it would allow potato chips, jam, biscuits, canned fruit, packaged hummus, halva, soft drinks, juice and shaving razors to be imported into Gaza, along with possible additional food items such as coriander and cardamom (both basic Middle Eastern condiments), and cookies.
This was greeted with scorn by Palestinian officials. "They will send the first course. We are waiting for the main course," Palestinian Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh said in Ramallah, in the West Bank. "We are waiting for this unjust siege to end."
The Israeli authorities' move seems likely to further undermine their claim that the blockade has only been aimed at keeping potential rocket and bomb material out of the hands of terrorists in Haza. Potato chips and hummus?
But it indicates the difficulty Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government is having in figuring out how to deal with growing world pressure, including from the White House, to end the blockade.
Israel is planning another adjustment, according to Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now: instead of listing items that are approved for importation into Gaza, Israel will only list unapproved items. That is hardly likely to deflect the pressure for fundamental change.
The Israeli nongovernmental organization Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement said it was "pleased to learn that coriander no longer presents a threat to Israeli security."
"However," the group said, "Israel continues to prevent the transfer of purely civilian goods, such as fabrics, fishing rods, and food wrappers, as part of what it calls "economic warfare" aimed at crippling Gaza's economy. In doing so, it denies 1.5 million human beings the right to engage in productive, dignified work.
"It is not enough to permit Gaza residents to purchase Israeli-made cookies. Israel should stop banning raw materials such as industrial margarine and glucose, so that Gaza residents can produce their own cookies and restart the economy that has been paralyzed for three years.
"International law requires Israel to allow the free passage of goods and people into and out of the Gaza Strip, subject only to individual security checks."
Nir reports that, according to Israel Radio, the Israeli cabinet is looking into easing the land blockade while maintaining the sea blockade. Others say Israel is considering tightening the land blockade but easing the naval one. Another radio report says Israel will lift the blockade in coordination with the European Union.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called for Gaza's borders to be opened immediately in accord with a 2005 agreement that would restore a role for the West Bank-based Palestinian government in managing the crossings. Fayyad told Reuters this would help reunify the West Bank and Gaza. "Reopening the crossings actually creates a much better environment for reuniting the country and the Palestinian institutions with it," he said.
Fayyad warned against any Israeli actions that would further split Gaza from the West Bank. "If the approach of reopening Gaza focuses on, let's say, ... exclusively maritime traffic, I see a serious risk of that putting us in a situation where we end up having Gaza as a stand-alone entity," Fayyad told Reuters at his Ramallah office.
"That is extremely dangerous from a political point of view, given our objective of ending the Israeli occupation and having a state of Palestine emerge from the territories occupied in 1967," Fayyad said.
Meanwhile, as many as 10 ships may be heading toward Gaza seeking to break the Israeli blockade in the coming months. They include a ship from Lebanon and one or more from Iran - sure to be seen as a provocation by the Israeli government - expected to arrive shortly. The Lebanese ship is expected to have on board dozens of journalists and European activists including members of parliament. The Iranian ship or ships are said to be carrying humanitarian aid collected by the Iranian Red Crescent.
The head of Israel's Shin Bet security/intelligence agency, Yuval Diskin, declared Tuesday that Gaza is not in a humanitarian crisis. But the International Red Cross and the British aid group Oxfam both issued statements this week saying the blockade has created an economic and human disaster for Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants. The two groups said the blockade amounts to collective punishment of civilians, a violation of international law.
Interviewed on bitterlemons.org, Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said, "I invite any Israeli to come and live in a refugee camp here and watch his father be unable to find work and provide for his family. I will go and live in Tel Aviv in the meantime. If Netanyahu finds that conditions here are so good, he can come and stay here."
Photo: A Palestinian man works in a bicycle shop in Gaza City. (AP/Maya Hitij)