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GAZA: Israel opens border for snack foods, but Gazans aren't biting

June 9, 2010 | 10:19 am

Let them eat cake -- and cookies, and potato chips and jam.

That’s how many here viewed Israel’s relaxation of border restrictions to permit a variety of new items into the Gaza Strip. The list, announced Wednesday, includes soda, juice, jam, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies, candy and a variety of spices, including coriander.

Israel’s move impressed almost no one in this impoverished seaside territory and even left some embittered, accusing Israel of tossing them a few scraps to score points with the outside world. “We don’t need jam and chips,’’ said Khitam Abdel Hadi, 30, who lives in a refugee camp near Gaza City. “We need jobs. We need houses. We need the freedom to move around. This is nothing.”

At a small grocery store near the Rafah Crossing to Egypt, a shopkeeper pointed to the boxes of cookies, chips and candy, and the cooler of fruit juices. “We have all these things already,’’ he said, noting that food items banned by Israel are routinely brought to Gaza through the network of smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

“Israel is just trying to fix its relationship with the international community after what happened on the flotilla," said Gaza car-parts vendor Samar Attala, 30.

Israel has been facing widespread condemnation over its May 31 raid of an aid-supply flotilla that was attempting to break its naval blockade of Gaza. Nine Turkish passengers were killed when activists aboard resisted the Israeli takeover by attacking commandos with knives and iron bars.

Israeli military officials denied that the new rules were in response to criticism over the raid, saying they’d been discussing the relaxations for weeks. They accused Palestinians of publicizing the new rules in an attempt to embarrass Israel. “They are trying to connect this to the flotilla, but it’s not,” said one military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Israel insists it has been revising and relaxing its rules for the last three months, permitting limited amounts of previously banned items such as shoes, clothing and even cement, as long as an international aid group or U.N. agency promises to monitor how the cement is used.

Israel says its rules barring many items from the Gaza Strip are designed to block “luxury” products or prevent “dual-use” items that might be seized by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that controls Gaza.

Israel has said it fears Hamas will use cement, for example, to build military bunkers. But critics say Hamas gets all the cement it needs through the smuggling tunnels and the main victims of the restrictions are Gazans, who have been unable to rebuild thousands of homes destroyed during the 2008-09 clash between Israel and Hamas.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khabit called Israel’s new policy a “joke. It shows how ridiculous the Israeli list is.” Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group that has been fighting to lift Israel’s restrictions on goods, called the recent relaxation a “pyrrhic” victory, saying Israel continues to ban more urgently needed items, such as fabric, fishing equipment, spare parts and electronics. But it added, “Gisha is pleased to learn that coriander no longer presents a threat to Israeli security.”

-- Edmund Sanders in Rafah, Gaza Strip 

Photo: Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt, at Rafah border crossing, southern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday. The opening of Gaza's gateway to the world has turned into a scene of extreme anxiety with hundreds crowding around border officials to learn when, and if, they can cross into Egypt. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press