GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli authorities allowed the import of Gaza produce on Thursday for the first time since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007, a move that will aid Gaza's battered economy and help pious Jews observe a biblical farming sabbatical.
Some 27 tons of tomatoes and five tons of eggplants were cleared to leave Gaza for Israel, Palestinian officials and Gaza merchants said.
"Exporting to Israel is better, but insufficient," said Gaza merchant Hosni Shehada, who oversaw the preparation of half-ripe tomatoes and large eggplants for export at his warehouse.
Before Hamas took over the seaside territory nearly eight years ago, Gaza merchants used to export hundreds of tons of vegetables to Israel on a daily basis.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade after Hamas ousted forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in bloody street battles.
Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from getting weapons. Critics say it amounts to collective punishment. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008, including a 50-day war last summer.
Since then Israel has increased the amount of entry permits for Gaza merchants to travel to the West Bank and Israel for business, and allowed more textile and furniture exports.
COGAT, the military agency that handles Gaza civilian affairs, said other vegetables will later be marketed along with the tomatoes and eggplants. It said about 1,500 tons of Gaza produce are expected monthly, with each ton valued at about $770.
Seventeen farmers sent produce samples to Israel for tests and only nine of them met Israeli standards, the Gaza Agriculture Ministry said. The produce will be exported with the name of the farmer stamped in Arabic and English on the boxes under a "Product of Gaza" line.
The easing of restrictions coincides with the seventh-year sabbatical, called "shmita" in Hebrew, which began last fall. During that time, according to the Bible, Israeli farmers must give their lands a rest.
Loopholes enable Israelis to eat local produce, but are rejected by a minority of the very devout, who could find an alternative with the Gaza exports.