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Israel allows building materials into Gaza

– Israel has started allowing long-banned building materials into the Gaza Strip, its first key concession to the Palestinian territory’s ruling Hamas movement under the cease-fire that ended eight days of fighting last month, the military said Monday.

The military says the shipments will continue so long as the border remains quiet. But a Hamas official said the amount sent so far is “cosmetic,” and Gaza economists say it would take years of round-the-clock shipments to even make a dent in the gap left by five years of blockade.

Israel imposed a wide-ranging embargo on Gaza after Hamas seized it in 2007. Building materials like cement, gravel and metal rods were largely banned, as Israel argued they could be used to make fortifications and weapons to attack the Jewish state.

The military says it began allowing shipments of gravel to Gaza’s private sector Sunday because the Israeli attacks on Hamas’ military operations in November cowed the militant group into quiet.

With limited exceptions, Israel had blocked construction materials from entering Gaza. “Now we’re talking about a permanent easing,” said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman, adding that 20 truckloads a day could enter Gaza, depending on Palestinian demand. Other concessions could follow, he said.

“The longer the calm persists, the more we’ll weigh additional easings of restrictions that will benefit the private sector,” he said.

Israel has not eased its naval blockade of the territory, which it says is imperative to keep weapons from being smuggled into Gaza by sea.

Another major concession the Gazans seek would be a lifting of a near-ban on exports from the impoverished territory. Exports, especially to the West Bank, the Palestinian territory on the opposite side of Israel, once formed the backbone of Gaza’s economy.

Exports might be expanded, Inbar said, “depending on the continuation of the calm.”

Critics contend the export ban punishes ordinary Gazans instead of pressuring Hamas, hurting four in five Gaza factories and contributing heavily to an unemployment rate of about one-third of the workforce.

Eighty percent of Gaza’s 1.6 million people rely on U.N. handouts.

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