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Easing of Gaza blockade may be on the cards

Negotiations currently taking place in Cairo have led to some cursory reports of agreements on easing the siege
An Israeli charity estimates that it will take a hundred years to rebuild Gaza at the current rate of construction (AA)

It is being reporting that Israel has tentatively agreed to ease certain aspects of the blockade on Gaza. Ynet News claims to have received documents relating to the current round of peace talks in Cairo, which list several of the agreed upon areas.

This includes Israel allowing Hamas government salaries to be paid via a third party; a gradual expansion of the fishing region off the Gaza coast, possibly up to six nautical miles (although Hamas is pushing for 12), and may also allow certain construction materials to enter Gaza, under close supervision.

Also close to being agreed upon is a doubling of the number of trucks being allowed to enter Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing. A potential increase in the number of permits issued for entry into Gaza is also being finalised as well as the possible broadening of criteria to enter Israel.

A key sticking point however seems to be the opening of the ports - airport and sea ports.

This is all taking place despite the fact that Hamas has not agreed to demilitarise the Gaza strip, which has been a key Israeli demand.

Reconstruction

Reconstruction is  a key demand of the Palestinian delegation at the talks. With thousands of homes reduced to rubble and its infrastructure in ruins, Gaza's reconstruction will cost billions and require at least an easing of Israel's blockade to allow in building materials.

Cement will be key among these materials, but its import will be controversial since it has been at the heart of an underground war between Israel and Hamas.

From Beit Lahiya in the north, to Rafah in the south, Israel's latest offensive has left swathes of the Gaza Strip in ruins.

Families come during brief lulls in the fighting to sift through the debris of their homes for possessions, waiting to start rebuilding their lives.

In front of his apartment - reduced to a grey mass of dust, rubble and twisted iron - Jamal Abed drags on a cigarette as he thumbs his prayer beads.

"They destroyed everything here, there's nothing we can do," he says.

He knows he could spend months, even years, without somewhere to live because his home will have to be completely levelled before it can be rebuilt.

But for reconstruction to start, there has to be a negotiated end to the fighting.

There also has to be cement, lots of it, and the Palestinian enclave is suffering a chronic shortage of this crucial construction material.

Israel first imposed a blockade on Gaza in summer 2006 after Hamas captured one of its soldiers in a cross-border tunnel attack.

It was significantly tightened a year later after the Hamas took control of the enclave, with Israel imposing severe restrictions on the entry of cement, gravel and steel.

Israel said the restrictions were aimed at stopping militants from building bunkers and other fortifications.

'100 years to rebuild'

James Rawley, the UN's resident and humanitarian coordinator has warned that failure to lift the blockade could cause more conflict in Gaza in the future.

If the measures are not removed, "not only will we see very little in the way of reconstruction, but I am afraid that the conditions are in place for us to have another round of violence like we're seeing now," he told AFP on Sunday.

In 2010, Israel eased restrictions on imports of food and construction materials after international outrage over a botched Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla trying to break the blockade left 10 Turkish activists dead.

Since Hamas took power in 2007, Israel has launched two major offensives on Gaza: the 22-day Operation Cast Lead over New Year 2009, and the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012.

Both caused widespread devastation to the battered enclave.

Gazans have been largely able to circumvent the restrictions of the blockade by importing cement through cross-border smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

But after the Egyptian military overthrew Hamas's ally, president Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013, the new regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cracked down on the tunnels, destroying over 1,600 of them and dealing a death blow to the smuggling industry.

Since then, Gaza's reconstruction has been dependent on the materials Israel has allowed in, with supplies only permitted for international construction projects.

Cementing the truce?

Agreements regarding construction material being let into Gaza is vital if Gaza is to be able to rebuild.

"It would take 100 years to rebuild Gaza with the current rate of construction material being allowed in," said Sari Bashi, co-founder of Israeli NGO Gisha which campaigns for Palestinian freedom of movement and trade.

"In the years in which cement has been banned from entering Gaza, Israel did not manage to prevent tunnels from being dug," she said.

"It is a policy that is overwhelmingly harming civilians in Gaza with little to no security benefit for Israel".

The UN estimates more than 11,800 homes have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, more than twice the number that were destroyed in Operation Cast Lead.

At the time, the international community pledged $4.5 billion (3.4 billion Euro) to rebuild Gaza's shattered infrastructure.

This time round, the Palestinians say they need up to $6 billion to fix hospitals, roads, schools, water facilities and factories hit by shelling and bombing.

Mahir al-Tabaa, head of Gaza's chamber of industry and commerce, says that "more than 350 industrial buildings" have been destroyed in the fighting, including 50 key factories.

But the conflict which began on July 8 is not yet over.

The warring sides have both agreed to hold their fire for three days to allow Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet in Cairo for talks on a more durable end to the fighting.

The issue of cement is set to be one of the key challenges for the two sides as they struggle to reach an agreement.

Israeli officials have recognised the importance of rebuilding Gaza but they do not want to lift the blockade - the main demand of the Palestinians.

"There will be no agreement without the blockade being lifted, without cement entering Gaza," said Daifallah al-Akhras, a senior Palestinian official.

"How do you expect us to rebuild without cement?"