By ARON HELLER and IBRAHIM BARZAK, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — In a major concession to Gaza's Hamas leaders Monday, Israel dropped its five-year ban on construction materials crossing into the territory and raised hopes there that rebuilding could begin following a damaging eight-day Israeli air campaign.
The easing of restrictions is an outgrowth of the cease-fire that ended the airstrikes and months of daily rocket fire from Gaza at Israel. Contacts mediated by Egypt to follow up the truce produced the concession, and Israel promised to keep easing the lives of Gaza's 1.6 million residents, as long as Israelis were no longer targeted by rocket fire by Gaza militants.
How long the new arrangement holds could serve as a test case for the brittle truce between the bitter enemies. It also reflects a new power equation, with neighboring Egypt under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent group of Hamas.
Israel, together with Egypt, imposed a land and naval embargo on Gaza after Hamas violently overtook the territory in 2007. Although Israel eased the restrictions in 2010, building materials such as cement, gravel and metal rods were still largely banned because Israel claimed militants could use them to make fortifications and weapons.
Hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border gave Gaza a conduit for all manner of goods as well as weapons, though the blockade remained intact.
During eight days of violence in November, the Israeli military said 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel, including the first from Gaza to strike the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. The rocket attacks killed six Israelis and wounded dozens. Israeli airstrikes killed 169 Palestinians, many of them militants, and caused considerable damage. Israel said it targeted Hamas installations and government buildings.
As part of a cease-fire agreement brokered by Egypt's new Islamist leaders, Israel agreed to consider new border arrangements in return for a complete cessation of rocket fire.
"Now we're talking about a permanent easing," said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman. "The longer the calm persists, the more we'll weigh additional easing of restrictions that will benefit the private sector."
Hamas downplayed the move, calling it inadequate. Gaza economists said it would take years of shipments to make a dent in the gap left by the five years of blockade.
Inbar said 20 truckloads a day could enter Gaza, and other concessions may follow "depending on the continuation of the calm."
Last week, Israel authorized the entry of 60 trucks and buses for the first time since the Hamas takeover.
Gaza crossing official Raed Fattouh confirmed that Israeli agreed to send in 20 trucks of gravel daily, five days a week.
"The Israelis promised to undertake further measures to alleviate the difficult economic situation in Gaza as a result of the calm," he said. "This move had been expected as part of the deal."
Gaza's leaders demand much more. Hamas wants Israel to lift the remainder of the blockade and the lifting of a near-total 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. The West Bank is run by the more moderate Fatah, ousted from Gaza by Hamas.
Critics contend the export ban punishes ordinary Gazans instead of pressuring Hamas, contributing heavily to an unemployment rate of about one-third of the workforce. Eighty percent of Gaza's 1.6 million people rely on U.N. support.
Egypt eased its own restrictions on Saturday, allowing in 1,400 tons of gravel paid for by Qatar. The oil-rich emirate 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 the Qatar-funded projects need more than 1 million tons.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt had poor relations with Hamas. Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, comes from 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.