Israel to Lift Gaza Blockade

Israel will ease its embargo of the Gaza Strip and will allow more aid to pass into the region, the country's security Cabinet announced on Thursday.

Israel will "liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza…expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision…[and] continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war material," a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office read.

"The cabinet will decide in the coming days on additional steps to implement this policy," it added.

The announcement comes after weeks of advocacy efforts from politicians and leaders in the faith community to end the Gaza blockade, which they said has created "a humanitarian crisis" in the region.

"Instead of enhancing Israel's security, the blockade has harmed its international standing and imposed an inexcusable humanitarian toll on the people of Gaza," said Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in an open letter to President Obama. "While Israel has allowed a very limited amount of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, the restriction on basic goods for agriculture, fishing, and infrastructure construction has caused poverty and joblessness to soar."

A letter from the U.S.-based Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) – a coalition of 23 Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant public policy offices – noted that the blockade "deprives 1.4 million Palestinians of a decent, minimum standard of welfare….restricts the use of the $300 million the United States has committed to rebuild Gaza, is a serious obstacle to restoring hope and making peace, and undermines long term Israeli security."

"We believe this policy is strategically unsound, harms Israel's security, and exacts an unacceptable toll on innocent Palestinians," they added.

The groups' remarks came following the death of nine activists killed during an Israeli raid in late May on a humanitarian convoy attempting to bring relief to Gaza refugees.

Both Israeli forces and the convoy organizers have denied inciting the violence, although many international leaders were critical that Israel had used a "disproportionate amount of force" during the raid.

Furthermore Israel's rejection of an independent investigation of the incident raised suspicions from some politicians, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called the flotilla incident "a historical mistake" and has threatened to break ties with Israel.

"This mistake is not only against Turkey, it is against civilians from 32 different countries," Erdogan said. "Violent policies will not bring about a positive outcome. We will not avert our eyes from violence like this."

Such remarks brought a strong response from U.S. Congressmen on Wednesday, who declared bluntly that they believe Turkey is responsible for the nine deaths in the flotilla incident

"If Israel is at fault in any way, it's by falling into the trap that was set for them by Turkey," said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) during a press conference, noting Turkey's funding of the failed flotilla.

Berkley added that the Turks have "extraordinary nerve to lecture the State of Israel when they are occupiers of the island of Cyprus, where they systematically discriminate against the ecumenical patriarch, and they refuse to recognize the Armenian genocide."

Lawmakers were further critical of Turkey's close ties with Iran, which they called "disgraceful."

"There will be a cost if Turkey stays on its present heading of growing closer to Iran and more antagonistic to the state of Israel," warned Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

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