By: Diaa Hadid, The Associated Press
JERUSALEM - Israel lifted a ban Wednesday on some food items such as snacks and spices that had been barred from Gaza under a three-year blockade, an effort to defuse worldwide furor over its deadly raid on an international flotilla bound for the Palestinian territory.
Critics complained the step falls far short of what is needed in the impoverished, densely populated coastal strip battered during a brief war with Israel 18 months ago.
Hours after Israel announced the change, President Barack Obama called the raid a "tragedy" and said a "better approach" is needed in Gaza. He called for a "new conceptual framework" for the blockade.
"What we also know is that the situation in Gaza is unsustainable," Obama said.
In the first tangible step to temper the uproar caused by last week's raid, Israel narrowly expanded the list permitted items, adding soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy. It did not allow more crucial items such as cement, steel and other materials needed to for rebuilding.
The U.N. said Israel must change its blockade policy.
"The international community is united in seeking an urgent and fundamental change in Israel's policy of blockading Gaza," said Maxwel Gaylard, the U.N.'s most senior humanitarian official in the Palestinian territories. "A modest expansion of the restrictive list of goods allowed into Gaza falls well short of what is needed. We need a fundamental change and an opening of crossings for commercial goods."
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the gesture was not worth commenting on.
Israeli officials said the move was meant to defuse pressure for an international investigation of the May 31 raid. One said authorities would continue to ease the blockade but could not lift the embargo altogether as long as Hamas remains in control. The Israeli officials all spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.
The clashes broke out after Israeli naval commandos boarded one of six ships on the flotilla and some of the hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists on board attacked them with pipes and other makeshift weapons. The Israelis killed eight Turkish citizens and one dual Turkish-American citizen.
The clash drew attention to the blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt to punish after Hamas militants seized Gaza in 2007. Hamas does not recognize Israel, and refuses to renounce violence. The blockade is meant to strangle Hamas' ability to govern, prevent it from acquiring building materials and weapons and pressure the militant group to release a captured Israeli soldier it has held for four years
Critics say it has not worked and its sweeping nature has punished Gaza's weakest residents. The blockade prevents all but basic humanitarian items and consumer goods from getting in, bars exports and prevents the import of goods such as metal cans and tubs of margarine needed for industrial production.
It has deepened Gaza's poverty, wiped out thousands of jobs and prevented most reconstruction of areas damaged from the war launched to stop years of Hamas rocket attacks.
Some of the items banned from Gaza seem arbitrary. Basic foodstuffs such as instant coffee and coriander were barred as luxury items, while more expensive foods such as herbal tea, salmon steaks and low-fat yogurt were permitted.
Sari Bashi, an Israeli human rights advocate whose group, Gisha, has led criticism of the blockade, called Israel's easing a "cosmetic" gesture.
"We are pleased that juice and sesame paste are no longer considered threats to Israeli security, but Israel needs to let in raw materials necessary to allow Gaza residents to engage in dignified, productive work," she said.
Israel has rejected calls for an international investigation into the raid, fearing it would be biased against the Jewish state. Instead, officials are working on a formula for an investigation to be run by Israelis while including some international observers. Israel has been seeking U.S. support for this approach, but so far has not been able to reach a formula.
"We are conferring with various elements in the international community regarding the appropriate process of investigation that will expose the facts on the Gaza flotilla. We know the truth," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an investors' conference.
Netanyahu said he, along with top government and military officials, would be willing to appear before the probe, but said it must look at key questions about the activists who clashed with the soldiers. Israel alleges they were trained mercenaries.