Israeli Panel Declares Gaza a 'Hostile Entity'

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 20, 2007

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 to the Hamas-run territory in an effort to stop near-daily rocket fire into Israel.

The designation amounts to labeling Gaza an enemy state, in the view of Israel's government, and allows it to apply pressure on the strip short of a military invasion while pursuing peace talks with the U.S.-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank. Israel's new policy, decided by the prime minister and other key ministers, could deepen the political divide between Gaza and the West Bank.

If implemented fully, the decision holds potentially grave humanitarian consequences for the strip's roughly 1.5 million residents, who rely on imported food, medicine and energy. It also poses a challenge to the Bush administration's peacemaking 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 this year.

Asked if she supported Israel's decision, Rice said Hamas is "a hostile entity to the United States, as well." She said that "we will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza" and that Gaza and the West Bank "are both constituent entities in the to-be future Palestinian state."

Gaza's crossings into Israel have been closed for all but emergency aid since June when Hamas, a radical Islamic movement, seized control of the strip after defeating forces from the secular Fatah party. Under the Israeli 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, said at 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."

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the movement, called the Israeli decision "a declaration of full-fledged war on the Gaza Strip" in a statement on a Hamas Web site. "The steps are in preparation for a military operation that is looming."

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.

With a flight time of a minute or less, the rockets have proved 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 this month and suggested Wednesday that the step would take Israel closer to a broad ground invasion of the strip.

Israel occupied Gaza in 1967, maintaining a military presence there until it withdrew soldiers and settlers in the fall of 2005 without negotiating the terms with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader. 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.

Since Hamas's election victory, the link between the West Bank and Gaza has withered because of Israel's frequent closures 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 is no longer responsible for the welfare of its residents, most of whom are refugees.

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 policies toward each, declaring that the decision Wednesday was consistent with international law. She said the decision was designed in part to convince the Palestinians in Gaza that "Israeli security is part of their interests."

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." A number of international humanitarian agencies active in Gaza also criticized the decision as illegal.

"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.

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