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Israel Eases Building Materials Blockade On Gaza

By AMY TEIBEL and IBRAHIM BARZAK

JERUSALEM (AP) â¿¿ Israel has started allowing long-banned building materials into the Gaza Strip, its first key concession to the Palestinian territory's ruling Hamas movement under the cease-fire that ended eight days of fighting last month, the military said Monday.

The military says the shipments will continue so long as the border remains quiet. But a Hamas official said the amount sent so far is "cosmetic," and Gaza economists say it would take years of round-the-clock shipments to even make a dent in the gap left by five years of blockade.

Israel imposed a wide-ranging embargo on Gaza after Hamas seized it in 2007. Building materials like cement, gravel and metal rods were largely banned, as Israel argued they could be used to make fortifications and weapons to attack the Jewish state.

The military says it began allowing shipments of gravel to Gaza's private sector on Sunday because the Israeli attacks on Hamas' military operations in November cowed the militant group into quiet.

After the November hostilities, Israel and Hamas began indirect, Egyptian-led talks over new border arrangements. The militant group wants Israel to lift what remains of a sweeping land and naval embargo it imposed after the Hamas takeover. In return, Israel demands an end to arms smuggling into Gaza.

With limited exceptions, Israel had blocked construction materials from entering Gaza.

"Now we're talking about a permanent easing," said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman, adding that 20 truckloads a day could enter Gaza, depending on Palestinian demand. Other concessions could follow, he said.

"The longer the calm persists, the more we'll weigh additional easings of restrictions that will benefit the private sector," he said.

Israel recently authorized the entry of 60 trucks and buses for the first time since Hamas' 2007 Gaza takeover, though there are conflicting reports on whether vehicles have actually gone through.

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