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Israel ready to ease Gaza blockade: Blair

Israel has agreed `in principle` to greatly ease its blockade of Gaza Strip.



Luxembourg: Israel has agreed in principle to greatly ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, allowing in everyday goods while ensuring arms and military material stay out, Middle East envoy Tony Blair said on Monday.

The move, which according to EU officials could take "weeks or months" to implement, follows strong international pressure in the wake of a deadly Israeli commando raid on an aid flotilla heading for the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

"In the conversations I`ve had with the Israeli Prime Minister there is now, in principle, agreement" for Israel to allow goods in, Blair told reporters after talks in Luxembourg with EU foreign ministers.

"They will maintain the blockade with respect to arms and combat material but they are prepared to let in goods that are necessary for people`s ordinary lives," he added.

European diplomats said Israel was considering opening one or both of the Karni and Kerem Shalom land crossings for deliveries, and that the goods may be vetted by the UN, with the EU prepared to help fund the new system.

Blair explained that Israel would scrap its list of items allowed to enter Gaza and would instead draw up a list of proscribed items.

"This is a significant change," the former British prime minister said.

"I believe and hope that we can, over this next period of days, reach a situation where we get a policy in respect of Gaza that is right for Israel`s security (and) is humane to the people in Gaza."

Last week, an Israeli rights group said the military is still preventing basic goods like vinegar, coriander and toys from entering Gaza as part of the crippling embargo on the Hamas-run territory.

The report by the Gisha Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement marking three years since closures were tightened said Israel permits just 97 different items to enter, as compared to more than 4,000 that entered before June 2007.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he was engaged in discussions on ways to meet Gaza`s humanitarian needs while preventing the entry of arms into the Hamas-run coastal strip.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, writing in international media on Monday, said the EU ministers "shall examine a practical plan to allow the people of Gaza to bring in what they need."

The comments came after Israel announced it had set up an "independent public commission" to investigate the raid on the aid flotilla on May 31 in which nine Turkish activists were killed.

The committee, which would include two foreign observers, was established to conduct an internal investigation into the legal aspects of the operation.

Ashton, arriving for the EU ministerial talks, said it was "very important to have a credible investigation", into the deadly incident.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the announcement of an investigation was "an important step forward" and welcomed the involvement of Northern Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble.

The other is Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of the Canadian armed forces.

"Clearly it is very important that it is a truly independent enquiry and a thorough investigation that the international community can respect," he added.

In a joint statement, the EU ministers deeply regretted the loss of life aboard the aid flotilla and called for "an immediate, full and impartial inquiry into these events and the circumstances surrounding them," including "credible international participation".

The EU statement called the situation in Gaza "unsustainable”, with the 27 foreign ministers calling for "an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza."

Bureau Report

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