By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 19, 2007 4:22 PM
JERUSALEM, Sept. 19 -- Israel's security cabinet on Wednesday declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" and said it would begin cutting electricity and fuel supplies to the Hamas-run territory in an effort to stop the constant rocket fire into Israel.
The decision further splits Gaza from the West Bank, the other main territorial component of a future Palestinian state, and holds potentially grave humanitarian consequences for the strip's roughly 1.5 million residents who rely on imported food, medicine and energy to survive. It also poses new challenges to the Bush administration's peace-making efforts, coming on the first day of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit here to promote a U.S.-sponsored meeting of Israeli, Palestinian and regional leaders proposed for later this year.
Gaza's crossings with Israel have been closed for all but emergency aid since Hamas, an armed Islamic movement, seized control of the strip in June after defeating forces from the secular Fatah party. Under the Israeli security cabinet decision, "additional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime in order to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity." It did not say when the new sanctions would begin.
"It's not a secret that Hamas is a terrorist organization," Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, told a news conference here after meeting with Rice. "Even though when it comes to humanitarian needs we have our responsibilities, on the other hand all the needs which are more than humanitarian needs will not be supplied by Israel."
In a statement posted on a Hamas Web site, Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the movement, called the Israeli decision "a declaration of full-fledged war on the Gaza Strip."
"The steps are in preparation for a military operation that is looming with the Zionist occupation forces," Barhoum said in the statement.
Palestinian gunmen, including those from Hamas's military wing, have fired thousands of crude rockets, known generically as Qassams, into southern Israel since the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Last week, a rocket strike on an army base north of Gaza wounded more than 60 Israeli soldiers on their last day of basic training.
With a flight-time of a minute or less, the rockets have proven impossible to stop. Israeli military ground operations, artillery fire and assassinations have had little effect in deterring the attacks, which have killed 12 Israelis and wounded hundreds of others.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, have come under increasing public pressure to stop the attacks. Barak, a former prime minister with ambitions to return to the job, first raised the idea of cutting services to Gaza earlier this month and suggested Wednesday the step took Israel closer to a broad ground invasion of the strip.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in the fall of 2005 without negotiating the terms with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah moderate. Four months later Hamas, which celebrated Israel's Gaza withdrawal as a victory for its military wing, won parliamentary elections that gave it day-to-day control of the Palestinian government.
Hamas does not recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. That is in contrast to Fatah, which backs a two-state solution to the conflict. The 1993 Oslo accords, which Fatah supported, declares Gaza and the West Bank "a single territorial entity" for the purpose of negotiating the formation of a Palestinian state.
Since Hamas's election victory, the connection between the West Bank and Gaza has become virtually nonexistent because of Israel's frequent closure of the strip's passenger and cargo crossings. The Israeli government has argued in domestic courts that it no longer occupies Gaza, contending that it does not bear the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of its residents, most of whom are refugees.
The security cabinet decision effectively marks another step in dividing Gaza, where Hamas runs an increasingly isolated administration, from the West Bank, where Abbas's U.S.-backed government holds power.
Livni, another aspiring prime minister, said Israel did not want to split the territories. But she said the parallel governments required Israel to adopt distinct polices toward each, declaring that the decision Wednesday was consistent with international law.
But Noga Eitan, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group Gisha, called the security cabinet decision "a legal, ethical and moral fallacy that amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population."
"It doesn't matter what the definition of the government in Gaza is," Eitan said. "International law prohibits the damage of civilians, and Israel is responsible for distinguishing between terrorists and innocent men, women and children."
Gaza requires 197 megawatts of power, more than half of which is delivered over power lines from Israel. About 60 megawatts is generated by Gaza's single power plant, which runs on Israeli-delivered fuel.
"We don't agree with any policy that could further deteriorate the humanitarian situation in Gaza," said Nimr Hamad, a senior adviser to Abbas. "We do not accept that anyone should be punished, apart from the acts of Hamas and the other militants in Gaza."
Rice arrived for a two-day visit designed to push Abbas and Olmert toward completing an agenda for a U.S.-sponsored peace conference, tentatively scheduled for November in Washington.
Abbas has threatened in recent days to boycott the meeting unless a detailed framework can be established ahead of time, one that sets out a binding timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state. Olmert prefers to announce a general set of principles, calling them "intentions" rather than specific goals.
Asked if she supported the security cabinet decision, Rice reiterated the Bush administration's position that Hamas is a terrorist organization and "a hostile entity to the United States, as well." She said, "We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza," and stated that Gaza and the West Bank "are both constituent entities in the to-be future Palestinian state."
But Hamad indicated that the security cabinet declaration is likely to cloud the talks, saying, "I do not know why the Israelis took such a decision with the presence of Dr. Rice."
In his statement, Barhoum, the Hamas spokesman, said the declaration was part of an Israeli campaign to "starve and make the Palestinian people of Gaza kneel down so they will revolt against Hamas" and "accept any American dictates from the talks this autumn."