Israel Refuses to Ease Blockade

Israel stood fast yesterday by its decision to clamp shut cargo crossings with the Gaza Strip, brazenly rejecting pleas from United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon to ease the blockade.

Israel sealed the passages two weeks ago after a five-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza fighters started unraveling.

The closures have drastically reduced the amount of goods entering the already impoverished seaside territory of 1.4 million people.

On Tuesday, Ban called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “to express his deep concern over the consequences of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza,” the UN said in a statement.

“He strongly urged the prime minister to facilitate the freer movement of urgently needed humanitarian supplies into Gaza,” the statement said.

Olmert retorted that Israel was not to blame for the deterioration of conditions in Gaza, the prime minister’s office said.

Israel’s blockade has led to frequent blackouts throughout Gaza and resulted in shortages of food, supplies and even cash.

Gaza’s largest flour mill halted operations yesterday, saying it had run out of wheat, and the United Nations said it was being forced to suspend cash grants to 98,000 of Gaza’s poorest people because of a shortage of Israeli currency.

The Israeli closure also prompted major international media organizations, including The Associated Press, BBC, Reuters and The New York Times, to send a rare protest letter to the prime minister, requesting that foreign journalists be allowed into Gaza. Israel has barred reporters from entering the area for the past two weeks.

Palestinians reported a large explosion east of Gaza City yesterday. Hamas officials said the blast was caused by a shell. No one was hurt.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh met leaders of other Palestinian factions yesterday. He said they support maintaining the truce “as long as the occupation (Israel) commits to it.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio yesterday that “there has to be calm for the crossings to open.” Israel and Hamas have been observing a truce since June.

The cease-fire continued until Israeli troops entered Gaza early this month to destroy a tunnel they alleged fighters had dug to attack Israel. At least 17 fighters have been killed since and about 150 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel, by the military’s count.

The June 19 cease-fire is to expire in December. The fighting might be an attempt by both sides to dictate more favorable terms for renewing the truce.

There were tenuous indications, however, that the violence might be subsiding. No major clashes were reported on Tuesday or yesterday.

Barak said “it’s possible” there are signs fighters were holding their fire. “If the other side decides after all to go toward a truce, then there will be a truce,” he said. “But if they escalate the violence, then Israel will launch a large-scale military operation.”

Israel has so far balked at such a campaign, concerned it would generate heavy casualties without effectively suppressing rocket fire. Israel also could be reluctant to invade Gaza ahead of Feb. 10 parliamentary elections.
 
(Agencies via Arab News – www.arabnews.com)

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