Israel ‘eases’ blockade after hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza Strip

Israel says it will allow more goods and equipment to enter the besieged Gaza Strip for civilian and international projects following days of heightened tensions.

The announcement comes a day after hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated near the Israeli fence in the Gaza Strip, calling on Israel to ease a crippling blockade.

The Israeli military beefed up its forces in advance of the demonstration on Wednesday, said it was using tear gas and live fire to disperse the crowd in southern Gaza. Palestinian medics reported at least nine people were wounded.

The Al Aqsa TV television network, which is run by Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs Gaza, showed crowds of people approaching the fence, then running away when an Israeli military vehicle arrived. Tear gas could be seen floating in the wind.

The military said it was using .22 calibre gunfire, a type of weapon that is meant to be less lethal than more powerful firearms but can be deadly.

Hamas has organised the protests in an attempt to put pressure on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza.

The defence ministry’s body in charge of Israel’s crossings with the Palestinian territory said in a statement late on Wednesday that it would increase imports of new vehicles, goods and equipment for civilian projects in the Gaza Strip, and issue more permits for Palestinian businessmen from Gaza to enter Israel starting Thursday.

The easing of restrictions would be “conditional upon the continued preservation of the region’s security,” and could be further expanded if the border situation improves, the body known as COGAT said.

Hamas officials said Egypt would also be partially reopening its key border crossing with the Gaza Strip on Thursday.

Israel and Egypt have maintained the blockade since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning the Palestinian election.

The blockade has devastated Gaza’s economy and fuelled an unemployment rate hovering around 50 percent. Israel has said the blockade, which tightly restricts the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, is intended to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities.

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and numerous skirmishes since 2007, most recently an 11-day escalation in violence in May that killed 260 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel.

Hamas has accused Israel of violating the ceasefire that ended the fighting by tightening the blockade. In particular, it has restricted the entry of materials needed for reconstruction.

Israel has demanded the return of the remains of two soldiers killed in a 2014 war, as well as the return of two Israeli civilians believed to be in Hamas captivity.

Last week, Israel reached an agreement with Qatar to allow the Gulf country to resume aid payments to thousands of impoverished Gaza families.

Under the new system, the payments will be delivered by the United Nations directly to families that have been vetted by Israel. In the past, the aid was delivered as cash straight to Hamas.

The payments are expected to begin in the coming weeks, providing some relief in Gaza.