Monday, November 29, 1999

Israel pushes Gaza blockade talks to Thursday

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Israel's security cabinet met on Wednesday to consider easing a Gaza blockade following an international outcry over a deadly raid on an aid flotilla, but adjourned without taking any decisions.The cabinet will reconvene on Thursday to continue discussions on expanding a list of about 100 goods Israel permits through overland crossings into the Gaza Strip, a senior government official said.Israel's internal security chief, Yuval Diskin, voiced opposition in a briefing to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday to any lifting of Israel's naval blockade of the territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians and run by Hamas Islamists.Israel faces international calls to ease or lift its Gaza embargo following the killing by Israeli commandos of nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists during the interception at sea of an an aid convoy on May 31.Israeli leaders said the troops acted in self-defence after being swarmed by activists who attacked them, and that the blockade is necessary to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas.Israel imposed the blockade soon after Hamas, which has rejected Western calls to recognise its right to exist, won a Palestinian legislative election in 2006. Restrictions were tightened after Hamas seized power in Gaza the following year.NEW PLANUnder a plan drawn up in coordination with Middle East envoy Tony Blair, Israel could move from a policy of banning the entry of many commercial goods into Gaza, except a few designated items, to accepting all products and prohibiting only those proscribed on a list, diplomats said.Blair represents the Quartet of international powers -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia -- seeking Middle East peace. He held talks last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.The former British leader said on Monday Israel had agreed in principle to easing the blockade "in days".Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog, who has called for the lifting of the blockade, said on Army Radio on Wednesday the measure was "outdated and no longer applicable in the current international and diplomatic climate".A network of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt keeps the enclave supplied with a variety of commercial goods. Hamas maintains its own tunnels, which Israel says are also used for weapons smuggling.Humanitarian aid shipments are transferred regularly via border crossings with Israel, but international aid groups say more supplies are needed.(Editing by Robert Woodward)

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