Israel's government said Thursday it was easing a three-year-old land blockade on Gaza that came under intensified international fire after an Israeli raid on an aid flotilla killed nine pro-Palestinian activists.
Following are some questions and answers about the blockade.
HOW MANY PALESTINIANS LIVE IN GAZA?
There are 1.5 million people, of whom about 1 million depend to some extent on regular supplies of U.N. and other foreign aid brought in overland after Israeli inspection.
WHY IS GAZA UNDER BLOCKADE?
Because it is under the control of the militant Islamist movement Hamas, which does not accept Israel's right to exist and remains committed to armed resistance. The blockade was conceived three years ago as a way of suffocating popular support for Hamas, but the strategy has not worked. Hamas remains firmly in power and the blockade is denounced by critics as a form of collective punishment.
WHO DECIDES WHAT GETS IN AND OUT OF THE ENCLAVE?
Israel alone decides on what is openly allowed to cross the closed borders of the Gaza Strip. Most commercial goods are banned. Humanitarian aid is allowed in. Gaza smugglers have dug hundreds of underground tunnels to Egypt on the southern border where contraband of all sorts, including weapons, is smuggled in. Gaza residents say they particularly miss ice cream, Coca-Cola and instant coffee that used to be brought in from Israel.
SO WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
The United Nations aid agency charged with supporting Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) says people with power and money in Gaza can obtain "anything they want" via the tunnels. "There are lots of things to buy. But this stuff is out of reach of the abject poor," said spokesman Chris Gunness. The number of Gazans unable to afford sufficient food has risen threefold in the past year to 300,000.
WHAT HAS ISRAEL ADDED TO ITS LIST OF ALLOWED IMPORTS?
Palestinian supply coordinator in Gaza Raed Fattouh said Israeli officials had informed him that stationery, kitchen utensils, children's toys, mattresses, towels and any food would now be allowed in. But Gunness said there was still no definitive list of what is barred. "There has never been a list. "That's part of the Israeli strategy -- the moving goalposts."
HOW DID HAMAS RESPOND TO ISRAEL'S ANNOUNCEMENT?
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed the new provisions. "The Israeli decision to increase some of the items is not worthy. It is propaganda that aims to mislead international public opinion and to maintain the continuity of the blockade," he said. "What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade. Goods and people must be free to move in and out of Gaza. All Gaza needs, especially construction materials and raw materials, must come in without restrictions," Zuhri said. "Some of the goods they talk about are trivial and secondary."
WHY ARE SOME INTERNATIONAL CRITICS ALSO SCEPTICAL?
"First all of we should be talking about lifting the blockade, not easing it," said Gunness. "The blockade is illegal under international law." Secondly, while the world fixates on getting aid into Gaza, "what about allowing exports to get out?" he said. A 2005 agreement with Israel speaks of allowing up to 400 truckloads of exports to leave the enclave daily, but there is nothing even approaching that. Some 3,000 businesses have failed and 44 percent of the people are unemployed, UNRWA says.
"Gaza people are industrious and entrepreneurial. Give them the chance and they will earn their living," said Gunness.
WHY WON'T ISRAEL END BAN ON BUILDING MATERIALS IMPORTS?
Israel says unrestricted transfer of such materials is a clear security risk. They could be seized by Islamists militants to build up the military infrastructure, replacing bunkers, reinforced firing positions and rocket launch sites.
Cement and steel reinforcement rods are vital for the reconstruction of homes and factories destroyed in Israel's 3-week military offensive in Dec-Jan 2008-2009 against persistent Islamist rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups.
WHAT ABOUT ISRAEL'S BLOCKADE OF THE GAZA COAST?
This is the last place Israel is likely to relax its grip on. Ships can transport big quantities of heavy weapons, such as the longer-range rockets that Israel says Hamas sponsor Iran has already tried to smuggle into the enclave.
(Reporting by Douglas Hamilton and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Diana Abdallah)