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Israel has eased its Gaza land blockade

KEREM SHALOM CROSSING, Israel - Israel is easing its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza to allow in virtually all consumer goods, but the new rules are unlikely to restore the territory's devastated economy or allow rebuilding of all that was destroyed in last year's war.

The White House welcomed the changes announced yesterday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington for a meeting Tuesday with President Barack Obama. International Mideast envoy Tony Blair said the measures "should have a dramatic influence on the daily lives of the people of Gaza and on the private sector."

The blockade changes come in response to an outcry following a deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting flotilla at the end of May. The changes will improve Gazans' access to goods ranging from household cleaners to timber. Israel will continue to ban most travel and exports from Gaza and restrict the import of desperately needed construction materials.

Gaza business leaders and rights activists said the measures are far short of what Gaza needs. They noted that the only active cargo crossing, Kerem Shalom, may not be enough to bring in all the goods now permitted.

Israeli officials said the remaining restrictions, including on exports, are essential for maintaining security.

Yesterday, goods dropped off at Kerem Shalom included previously banned washing machines. Aid supplies that had been transported on the intercepted flotilla also found their way to the crossing, including previously banned mattresses.

Israel started restricting movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after the 2006 capture of an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, by Hamas-allied militants. A year later, when Hamas overran Gaza, Israel, backed by Egypt, imposed a fuller closure, allowing in only a few dozen types of humanitarian goods like basic food and medicine.

Israel says it will lift the blockade if Hamas releases the soldier, recognizes Israel and renounces violence. Hamas, considered a terror organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union, has rejected those terms.

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