Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [official profile] on Thursday announced [text] that the Security Cabinet has agreed to ease the nation's land blockade of the Gaza Strip [BBC backgrounder]. The Israeli government has been under increasing international pressure to review its policy towards Gaza since its May 31 raid of several Turkish ships bound for the strip left nine dead. The statement released by Netanyahu claimed that the government will "liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza," including the importation of all food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels. The new policy will also "expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision," allowing access to more construction materials [Haaretz report] to repair damage from the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead [GlobalSecurity backgrounder; JURIST news archive] in Gaza. The statement was sent to foreign consulates and embassies indicating that the decision made by the security cabinet will be implemented immediately. The announcement was welcomed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US President Barack Obama [official website], both of whom noted that the new policy was step in the right direction. Middle eastern media reports have called Israel's policy change a ploy to appease the international community [BBC report], and called for continuing pressure to lift the blockade completely.
International pressure to lift the blockade has increased significantly since the May 31 flotilla attack. Turkey, a longtime ally of Israel, has included lifting the blockade as a condition upon which the restoration of normal diplomatic ties rests, along with an apology and an international inquiry. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) [official website] on Monday called for and end [JURIST report] to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, which it labeled a violation of international humanitarian law under Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions [text; ICRC backgrounder]. Israel has so far refused an international inquiry [JURIST report] into the flotilla attack. Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council [official website] condemned [JURIST report] Israel's raid on the ships and initiated an independent investigation into possible violations of international law. Also that week, the UN Security Council [official website] called [JURIST report] for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation" into the raid. The Turkish ship on which the violence occurred was one of six organized [Guardian backgrounder] by the Free Gaza Movement [advocacy website] to carry protesters and humanitarian supplies to the isolated Palestinian enclave. The Gaza naval blockade began in 2007 after Hamas forcibly expelled [BBC report] their chief rival, Fatah [CFR backgrounder] from Gaza. In 2006, Hamas was elected [JURIST report] as the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority after unbroken rule by Fatah. In January 2008, then-UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour also described the blockade as collective punishment [JURIST report].