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Britain praises Israel's plans to ease Gaza blockade; U.S. 'gratified'

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: Ehud Barak says "We have nothing against the 1.5 million Gazans"
  • U.S. State Department: Israel's plans to ease Gaza blockade a "welcome step"
  • British foreign secretary praises Israel's plan
  • Palestinian government and organization say it's not enough

(CNN) -- Britain's foreign secretary and the U.S. State Department's spokesman have joined the chorus of international leaders praising Israel's plans to ease its blockade of Gaza.

Israel's decision is a "welcome step," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday, but the U.S. will "wait and see how the policy is further developed."

"Their present approach is unsustainable, and we are gratified that the Israelis have heeded our advice and that of others and are moving to change the policy," Crowley said.

"We'd like to see this policy fully developed an implemented as rapidly as possible," he told reporters. "We do have a sense of urgency about this."

Once implemented, these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians, Crowley said.

"But now comes the hard part: actually implementing this policy and in the process working effectively with the Palestinian authority to increase the flow of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank," Crowley observed.

In a statement Sunday night, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said easing the blockade was a step in the right direction that should be taken quickly.

Video: Tony Blair on easing Gaza blockade
  • Gaza
  • Israel
  • Middle East Conflict

"Israel's long-term interests lie in creating an environment where Gaza's economy can flourish," he said. "The test now is how the new policy will be carried out."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the change Sunday after an Israeli Security Cabinet meeting.

While several major powers commended Israel's move, a Palestinian organization and government said it did not go far enough.

"The government position is that Israel should open all the crossings of Gaza in accordance with 2005 AMA agreement and end the closure regime," Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib told CNN.

Netanyahu said the change is among six steps the Israeli government will begin implementing as soon as possible, including expanding operations at the existing operating land crossings and streamlining the permitting process of international aid groups the government recognizes.

The naval blockade of Gaza remains in place, and military officials will continue to inspect goods on Gaza-bound ships, Netanyahu said. "Israel will continue to facilitate the expeditious inspection and delivery of goods bound for Gaza through the port of Ashdod."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak elaborated on the new policy Monday after emerging from a meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations.

He said all products to Ramallah, Jenin and the West Bank must go through Israel first.

He added, "We have nothing against the 1.5 million Gazans, almost all of them innocent people like any one of us, and who have the right to get humanitarian aid."

"I insist there never was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There never was hunger. No humanitarian crisis."

Barak noted that "only one person in Gaza is deprived from daylight, deprived from the right to meet his relatives, deprived from the basic rights of human beings. His name is Gilat Shilat," referring to the Israeli soldier captured nearly four years ago in a cross-border raid from Gaza.

Tony Blair, envoy for the Middle East Quartet -- the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- said in a statement Israel would publish a list of weapons and war items not permitted into Gaza rather than those permitted and allow full access of civilian goods.

The Israeli Security Cabinet said last week it planned to revamp its policy, paving the way for a vote Sunday.

"This comes as a partial manner due to international pressure but does not meet the minimal needs of the people in Gaza to live in dignity," said Hanan Ashrawi, member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee.

Ashrawi said the steps were an improvement but the blockade should be completely lifted and the Israeli occupation ended.

Israel's announcement comes three weeks after ships in Israel's naval blockade sparred with a flotilla of aid ships heading to Gaza. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the incident, which drew international criticism.

Israel's military stopped the flotilla and boarded the ships. Israel says its troops were attacked with knives, metal poles and other objects on one of the boats, and the flotilla passengers say they were fired upon without provocation.

Barak said he believes there may be plans to send more flotillas to Gaza, saying that's something Israel "cannot accept."

He said as long as there may be plans for more flotillas, he's urging the U.N. secretary-general not to conduct an inquiry into the recent deadly flotilla incident.

Meanwhile Blair, who met with Netanyahu on Sunday, said the move should radically change the exchange of goods in the area.

"Plainly there are still issues to be addressed and the test of course will be not what is said, but what is done," Blair said in a statement. "But I welcome strongly this statement of policy and the Office of the Quartet Representative looks forward to working closely with the Government of Israel and other partners on its implementation."

The White House also commended the policy, saying in a statement it will improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons.

"There is more to be done, and the president looks forward to discussing this new policy, and additional steps, with Prime Minister Netanyahu during his visit to Washington on July 6," the statement said.

CNN's Guy Azriel, Jill Dougherty, Kareem Khadder and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.