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Israel eases blockade of Gaza Strip amid diplomatic flap with Germany

Israel has loosened its blockade of goods to the Gaza Strip, blunting a diplomatic tiff with Germany over a refusal to allow a government minister to inspect an infrastructure project in the enclave.

Trucks lined up waiting to enter Gaza

Israel is again allowing civilian aid into the Gaza Strip

Israel's decision to radically revamp its blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has been quickly endorsed after worldwide condemnation over a raid on an aid flotilla in the Mediterranean three weeks ago. It has also helped cool a potential diplomatic rift with Germany.

As the news broke, German Development Minister Dirk Niebel was continuing his four-day tour to the Middle East, despite having been told by Israel that he could not visit a German-funded infrastructure project in Gaza.

Niebel met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann on Monday, as the German government tried to play down what Niebel had earlier called "a big diplomatic mistake."

Some German politicians have been quick to criticize Israel. Kerstin Mueller, of the Green party, described Israel's behavior as "unworthy of a democracy", while Rainer Stinner, the foreign policy spokesman of the Free Democrats, said Israel was "turning off its closest friends."

Not personal, but policy

Development Minister Dirk Niebel inspecting a German-funded West Bank sewage treatment plant

Niebel was piqued, but the German government has played down the incident

But Avi Primor, Israel's former ambassador to Germany, said this was not a personal attack on Niebel or the German government.

"This was not directed against Mr. Niebel, but is part of Israel's general policy towards Hamas in Gaza," he told a German radio station. "If he were allowed in, others would ask: why can't we enter, too? I also think Israel's Gaza policy is wrong, but the move has nothing to do with the minister personally."

Germany downplays minister's blocked entry to Gaza

The chancellor's office appeared to agree. Christoph Steegmanns, a deputy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters in Berlin that Merkel did not view Israel's move as a political affront.

"The chancellor regrets that Minister Niebel was not granted access to a development project funded by Germany and expects Israel to allow him to visit at a later date. The chancellor does not consider the incident to be one that strains our close and friendly relations with Israel," Steegmanns said.

As Israel was announcing its plans to ease its Gaza blockade, Niebel was visiting another German-funded project in the West Bank.

On hearing about the relaxation, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking as the representative of the Middle East Quartet, said the "new policy allows the government of Israel to maintain its absolute determination to protect Israel's security whilst improving significantly the lives of people in Gaza."

The so-called Middle East Quartet, which is trying to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, is made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Dual-use goods still blacklisted

The lifting of a wide variety of restrictions means that certain amounts and types of civilian goods will now be allowed into the enclave.

Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel is seeking to keep weapons out of Gaza, says the prime minister

Dozens of trucks carrying goods previously banned crossed the Israeli border into Gaza on Monday. However, so-called dual-use goods, such as cement, steel and other materials which could be used for terrorist purposes will only be allowed in under close supervision.

Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza four years ago, shortly after three Gaza-based militant groups staged a cross-border raid and kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that, under the new policy approved by the Israeli security cabinet, "Israel seeks to keep out of Gaza weapons and war-supporting material that Hamas uses to prepare and carry out terror and rocket attacks against Israel and its civilians. . . . All other goods will be allowed into Gaza," he said.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, meanwhile, has also welcomed Israel's decision to partially lift its blockade of Gaza, but urged Israel to lift the blockade entirely to allow goods - and presumably ministers - into the territory.

Author: Gregg Benzow (dpa/Reuters/AFP)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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