Israel eases Gaza restrictions amid ceasefire efforts

Occupied Jerusalem: Israel on Wednesday opened its only cargo crossing with the Gaza Strip weeks after closing it amid a surge in violence with the Islamic militant group Hamas.

The reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing came as Egypt was stepping up efforts to broker a lasting cease-fire.

It was not clear if the move was part of a broader deal in the works but the opening came as speculation increased over negotiations mediated by Egypt and UN officials to reach a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas.

Israel’s security cabinet was reportedly meeting Wednesday to discuss the indirect talks, but Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said any deal must include Hamas returning the remains of two soldiers it is believed to be holding – a major sticking point.

Kerem Shalom is the main commercial crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, and serves as the primary avenue for food, fuel, construction materials and aid to enter the beleaguered Palestinian territory.

Israel and Egypt have imposed an economically crippling blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized control of the coastal territory from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007.

Israel says the blockade is needed to contain Hamas, a militant group that seeks its destruction.

While the closure has devastated Gaza’s economy, it has failed to oust Hamas or loosen its grip on power.

In the past month, Israel and Hamas have engaged in three rounds of heavy fighting, with the Israeli military carrying out dozens of air strikes in Gaza and Hamas firing dozens of rockets into Israel in retaliation.

The latest fighting ended a week ago.

Fuel shortages in Gaza have contributed to chronic power outages that have left its 2 million residents with just a few hours of electricity a day.

The United Nations had warned that the closure of the crossing would make the situation even worse.

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