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Report: Israel's easing of blockade has had 'limited effect'

By Kareem Khadder, CNN
A Gaza family eats during an outage in August. A report says the easing of a blockade hasn't helped much.
A Gaza family eats during an outage in August. A report says the easing of a blockade hasn't helped much.
  • NEW: Israel: Palestinians aren't capable of handling increased trucks into Gaza
  • Little has been done to improve the lives of Palestinians, human rights report says
  • Gaza has been under the blockade since 2007
  • Israel pledged to ease restrictions after deadly raid on flotilla this summer
  • Gaza
  • Israel

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israel's easing of an economic blockade on the Gaza Strip this year has had a "limited effect" and done little to improve the lives of Palestinians, according to a joint report released Tuesday by a group of international aid and human rights organizations.

"Israel's failure to live up to its commitments and the lack of international action to lift the blockade are depriving Palestinians in Gaza of access to clean water, electricity, jobs and a peaceful future," said Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, one of the 22 groups that signed the report entitled "Dashed Hopes: Continuation of the Gaza Blockade."

"Only a fraction of the aid needed has made it to the civilians trapped in Gaza by the blockade," Hobbs added.

Gaza has been subjected to an Israeli and Egyptian economic blockade since the Islamist movement Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. The blockade severely limited the types and quantities of goods that could be imported into Gaza and barred almost all exports from the coastal strip of approximately 1.5 million Palestinians.

After an Israeli raid this summer on an aid ship bound for Gaza in which nine people were killed, Israel pledged to ease restrictions on Gaza.

The Israeli government blasted the report and said the organizations had "chosen to present their claims through the media, without providing Israel with the opportunity to respond to the report."

"The claims of the organizations, as they appear in the report, are biased and distorted and therefore mislead the public," said Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for Israel's Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories.

"The number of truckloads entering the Gaza Strip every day via the Kerem Shalom Crossing has increased by 92 percent," Inbar said. "Despite the fact that Israel has increased the capacity so that 250 trucks could enter Gaza every day, the Palestinians themselves have not reached this capacity. From the beginning of August 2010, the average number of truckloads entering Gaza each day stands at 176."

The report acknowledges that although more goods have been allowed into Gaza, not enough has been done to ease import restrictions and that reconstruction efforts after an Israeli military offensive at the end of 2008 have been hampered due to a lack of building materials.

"Commercial raw material is prohibited, because nothing comes in for rebuilding or construction material, the 25,000 houses destroyed during [the offensive] are still destroyed or being built in a slow fashion with expensive cement that gets smuggled through the tunnels," Oxfam official Karl Schembri said.

Israel has allowed some construction material to be imported, but the United Nations says that the government has approved only 7 percent of the the world body's building plan for Gaza and that only a small percentage of needed construction material for those projects has been allowed to enter.

"It's a very complicated and slow process," said Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. "It needs decades to rehabilitate Gaza at this rate."

Inbar defended Israel's policy on construction materials, saying that "building material for specified projects that were approved by the PA can enter under the supervision of the international community."

"The simple reason for this is to prevent the trickling of material into the Gaza Strip that can be used by terror organizations for hostile activities or other military purposes," he said.

Inbar also said Israel has begun a renovation project at the Kerem Shalom Crossing "with the aim of widening the capacity of the crossing." He said the project is scheduled for completion in the middle of next year.

The report also challenges Israel's stated commitment to streamline entry and exit permits to and from Gaza for humanitarian cases and aid workers.

"There has been so far no tangible improvement practice," the report reads. "On the contrary, there has been a decrease in the rate of permit approvals for entry and exit of U.N. agencies' national humanitarian staff. Permit policy for aid workers and medical patients remains arbitrary and unpredictable and time consuming."

Israel pointed to recent International Monetary Fund data indicating that the Gaza economy grew 16 percent during the first half of 2010. It also noted the opening of a new Gaza shopping mall as evidence that the economic situation is not as dire as portrayed by the authors.

"To deny all this evidence can only reflect a will to hammer in a propaganda message and not to do something to improve the situation on the ground," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

"If they continue to turn their back on reality, the signatories of the report will only help Hamas to prevent the Gaza residents from reaching more prosperity through cooperation with Israel," he said.

Amnesty International Director Kate Allen said the blockade represented collective punishment against the civilians of Gaza, adding that "the only real easing has been the easing of pressure on the Israeli authorities to end its cruel and illegal practice."