JERUSALEM, June 10, 2010— -- Israel signaled a partial easing of its three-year long economic blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip Wednesday, announcing that potato chips, fruit juices, Coca Cola, cookies and other snack foods would be allowed in starting next week.
But there is still no relaxation on the transfer of the raw materials Gazans and aid agencies claim are desperately needed to rebuild the coastal territory's shattered infrastructure.
Things like cement, spare parts for cars, electrical appliances and other construction materials are still to be severely restricted.
The United Nations said Israel's move was not enough.
"A modest expansion of the restrictive list of goods allowed into Gaza falls well short of what is needed," said Maxwell Gaylard, a senior UN humanitarian official. "We need a fundamental change and an opening of the crossing for commercial goods," he added.
Israel first imposed its tough economic blockade in response to Hamas's armed takeover of Gaza in 2007. It says the policy is designed to prevent Hamas from building its military strength.
The Palestinians claim it is collective punishment and designed to put pressure on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held for almost four years.
Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli prime minister's office, said Israel has restricted the supply of cement for fear it would be used by Hamas, "first and foremost for their military machine in creating bunkers and fortifications."
Yesterday's gesture seemed only to cast further critical light on the arbitrary nature of Israel's list of prohibited goods. Before the blockade 4,000 separate products flowed into Gaza every week, with yesterday's modest expansion the list now includes 150 products.
Since 2007 the Israelis have excluded many popular herbs and spices for cooking, Gaza's schools have been without notebooks and pencils, there has been no cloth for the once-thriving garment factories, no household appliances including kitchen knives and forks.
Last week the World Health Organization complained x-ray machines, spare parts for elevators, and other vital medical equipment had not been allowed in by Israel.
Basic food supplies and fuel for cooking and Gaza's power station have always been let in but in sharply reduced quantity. To fill the gaps a network of smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border has developed.
Some tunnels serve as a conduit for weapons as well as food, clothing, and basic commodities. The network of smuggling tunnels is controlled by Hamas.
President Obama Calls Gaza Status Quo 'Unsustainable'
There was little enthusiasm from the Palestinian Authority over the news of yesterday's easing.
"They will send the first course. We are waiting for the main course. We are waiting for this unjust siege to end," said Palestinian Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh.
Israel has been under increasing international pressure to ease the blockade. Last week's bungled commando raid on a flotilla of aid ships trying to deliver aid to Gaza increased that pressure.
The raid ended in the deaths of nine activists, including an American citizen.
President Obama added his voice to the debate when he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House yesterday.
"Not only is the status quo with respect to Gaza unsustainable but the status quo with respect to the Middle East is unsustainable," Obama said. He announced the U.S. would give the Palestinians another $400 million in humanitarian aid.