(Jerusalem) - The Israeli Cabinet decision to ease the blockade of Gaza is a step toward ending a policy that amounts to unlawful collective punishment of Gaza's civilians, but fails to address severe Israeli restrictions on exports and freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said today.

Israel announced on June 20, 2010, that instead of permitting only a small number of items to enter Gaza, it would permit imports of all civilian items except "weapons and war materiel, including problematic dual-use" items, a move that could significantly increase the variety and quantity of civilian goods entering Gaza, Human Rights Watch said. While the announced policy change marks a step in the right direction, it would leave in place Israel's near-total limitations on exports and on Gazans' freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the decision would allow the "expansion of economic activity," the Cabinet decision did not address Israel's policy of restricting exports from Gaza, which has crippled Gaza's economy and led to high rates of unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity. During the past three years, Israel has permitted the export of only a few truckloads of strawberries and cut flowers.

Under international humanitarian law governing military occupation, Israel has an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of Gaza's civilian population.

While the Cabinet decision promised to "streamline the policy" allowing residents to leave Gaza for "humanitarian and medical reasons," it did not alter Israel's other restrictions on their freedom of movement, which have prevented Gaza residents from studying and working abroad and have separated families. International human rights law permits restrictions on freedom of movement for security reasons, but the restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.

Human Rights Watch called on the international community to press Israel to meet its international obligations to remove unlawful restrictions on the flow of goods into Gaza, and to lift unnecessary restrictions on exports and the free movement of people.

Human Rights Watch said that Egypt's formal relaxation of its closure of Gaza's southern border crossing at Rafah to Gaza residents was also a step forward. But Egypt should ensure that its border officials do not arbitrarily delay or deny Gazans' exit or entry, and open the border to the import and export of goods, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for Hamas to allow the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to communicate with his family and to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to him, and to maintain the de facto moratorium on indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel it has imposed on its armed wing and other major political factions in Gaza.