JERUSALEM — Israel announced Thursday that it would “liberalize” its 3-year-old blockade of Gaza by allowing more goods to enter by land, but it made no offer to lift its naval embargo.
The move, coming weeks after Israeli commandos killed nine people aboard an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, seemed designed to quell international protest over the violence. Israel says its soldiers were attacked before they opened fire in self-defense on pro-Palestinian activists aboard the ship.
The announcement said the easing would apply primarily to the importation of goods for projects under international supervision. But it did not offer a retreat in the restrictions on the passage of people in and out of Hamas-run Gaza, on exports, or on the importation of raw materials for the enclave’s largely paralyzed industries. The statement also said security checks would remain in place to prevent what it called weapons and war materiel from reaching Gaza.
Previously, Israel has ruled out significant change in its policy toward Gaza unless there is progress toward freeing Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and other militants in a cross-border raid in 2006.
The statement urged the “international community to work towards the immediate release of Gilad Shalit.”
“The cabinet will decide in the coming days on additional steps to implement this policy,” the statement added.
The fatalities at sea threatened Israel’s relationship with Turkey, its most important Muslim ally, and seemed to undermine fledgling efforts by the Obama administration to mediate indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis.
Regional tensions seemed to intensify on Thursday, when President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said in a BBC interview that the raid “destroyed any chance for peace in the near future.”
Referring to the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Assad said the raid “proved that this government is another pyromaniac government, and you cannot achieve peace with such government.” Israel has accused Syria of arming the Hezbollah Islamist group in Lebanon — a charge Syria denies, saying it is working for regional peace. It was not immediately clear how Israel’s neighbors would react to the apparent easing of the blockade.
Some Palestinians both in Gaza and in the West Bank said the Israeli measures were not enough, The Associated Press reported. “We want a real lifting of the siege, not window-dressing,” a Hamas lawmaker, Salah Bardawil, was quoted as saying. In the West Bank, the government of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, also rejected the Israeli decision, saying the restrictions should be lifted completely, The A.P. said. Reuters quoted a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, as saying: “What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade. Goods and people must be free to enter and leave. Gaza especially needs construction material, which must be allowed to come in without restrictions.”
Gaza has been under a land and sea blockade since Hamas took full control of the territory in 2007. Israel, the United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
The Israeli statement on Thursday said: “It was agreed to liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza and expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision.” But it did not specify any list of goods that would affected.
Since an Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008 that lasted into January 2009, Gazans have complained that they cannot rebuild their homes and businesses because they are not permitted to import concrete and other construction materials.
The wording of the announcement on Thursday seemed to suggest that the new regulations would still limit the supply of building materials for reconstruction undertaken or overseen by groups like the United Nations.
The announcement also said that “existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel” would continue.
Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, an advocacy group that focuses on freedom of movement for Palestinians, said the government’s promise of liberalization “doesn’t look good. Israel seems to be tinkering with the policy of the last three years rather than reconsidering it.” She called the measures “cosmetic changes.”
The announcement followed discussions between Mr. Netanyahu and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and envoy of the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers, comprising the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Alan Cowell from Paris.