- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 8, 2010

JERUSALEM | Israel decided Wednesday to allow increased exports from the Gaza Strip, further easing its blockade of the territory run by the militant Palestinian Hamas group.

Israel’s Security Cabinet said its decision would expand economic activity for Gazans. Critics of the blockade welcomed the decision as a first step but said more is needed to fully resuscitate Gaza businesses.

Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser said Israel wishes to “ease the pressure on the population in Gaza that is under Hamas’ oppressive and terrorist rule.”

Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza after Hamas seized power there in June 2007. Israel says the blockade keeps the Islamic militants from rearming, while critics say it hurts ordinary people in the seaside territory.

Under the new regulations, Palestinians will be able to export furniture, textiles and agricultural products, said Israeli military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar. He said the new exports to the West Bank and abroad would be allowed gradually, and he expected shipments to begin soon. The new regulations do not allow goods to reach the Israeli market.

Textiles, agriculture and furniture represent Gaza’s main industries, and they would greatly benefit from the new export rules, Gaza-based economist Omar Shaban said.

Up to now, Israel allowed only shipments of strawberries and flowers to be exported from Gaza.

Two years before the blockade began, Gaza’s sewing and textile industry alone was estimated at $39 million, and about 70 percent of textile goods were exported, according to Gaza’s Textile Industry Association. Today, only 1,500 people work in the industry, compared with 37,000 workers 10 years ago.

Israel began easing the blockade in June after Israeli commandos carried out a deadly raid on a Turkish ship that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla, but there are still tight restrictions on key construction materials.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel’s decision to allow more exports is “deceiving” because Israel still prevents raw materials from reaching Gaza businesses. “It’s another Israeli maneuver to give the impression that they are easing the blockade imposed on Gaza,” he said.

In a related development, a senior Israeli official said Wednesday that Israel and Turkey are in talks to try to improve relations badly strained after the ship raid on May 31.

Ron Dermer, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio they were trying to reach a compromise “both sides can live with.”

Meanwhile, Israeli aircraft attacked a target in southern Gaza early Wednesday in retaliation for rocket fire at Israel the day before, the military said. Palestinians said an abandoned house and a chicken farm were destroyed. No one was hurt.

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