JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel sealed all border crossings with the Gaza Strip Friday, cutting off the flow of vital supplies to the besieged territory in an attempt to stop Palestinian rocket barrages on Israeli border towns.
But violence continued Friday, with Israeli air strikes killing two civilians and one militant while Palestinians fired 16 rockets into southern Israel, including one that damaged a day care center.
The bloodshed clouded U.S.-backed peace talks that Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank government renewed last month. The Gaza quagmire could complicate U.S. President George W. Bush’s efforts to prod the sides toward a final peace deal by the end of the year.
A U.N. agency warned that the Israeli closure of the Gaza passages would increase hardship in the impoverished territory of 1.4 million Palestinians. Hamas threatened suicide attacks on Israel if it didn’t end the sanctions and military raids.
Gaza militants intensified rocket barrages after an Israeli anti-rocket raid in Gaza on Tuesday in which 19 Palestinians were killed, including the militant son of a prominent Hamas leader.
Israeli aircraft staged more strikes Friday, pounding the derelict local offices of the Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza City. The building had been vacant since it was severely damaged in a July 2006 air strike but it is situated in the heart of a residential neighborhood and Hospital officials said a woman was killed and at least 46 other civilians were injured by flying debris and shrapnel.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said the strike, against what she called “a Hamas headquarters”, was part of Israel’s campaign against the rocket fire. Planes also attacked a rocket launch squad in the northern Gaza Strip, killing a militant and a civilian bystander Hamas said, and a disused central Gaza base of Hamas security forces, where there were no casualties.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision is meant to pressure the Hamas rulers of Gaza to halt rocket fire, ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said.
Israel kept all crossings into Gaza closed Friday morning, meaning that about 20 trucks of food scheduled to pass during the day would not be allowed through, Dror said. The crossings are routinely closed Saturdays, and may not be opened Sunday morning if the rocket fire continues, he said.
Food and humanitarian supplies from Israel and aid organizations pass into the territory. “It’s time that Hamas decide to either fight or take care of its population,” Dror said. “It’s unacceptable that people in (the southern Israeli town of) Sderot are living in fear every day and people in the Gaza Strip are living life as usual.”
Israel was grappling with how to deal with rocket fire that did not end with its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The crude rockets, which the military has been unable to stop, have severely disrupted daily life in southern Israel. Since Hamas took over Gaza, Israel has cut off all ties with the territory, only allowing in food, fuel and humanitarian supplies.
On several occasions in recent months, Israel has reduced fuel and electricity supplies with the hope that Gaza’s population would pressure the militants to stop the rocket fire.
Since the siege was imposed, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have had to live with erratic supplies of food and no imports of products like spare car parts and computer paper.
The U.N. agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, condemned the Israeli move. “This can only lead to the deterioration of an already dire situation,” said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness. Hamas warned of suicide attacks in Israel if it did not end the sanctions and military operations. “If the bloodshed in Gaza and the West Bank does not stop, there will be similar bloodshed in … Tel Aviv,” Hamas spokesman Hamad al-Rukeb said in a statement.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli decision would not bring a cessation of the rocket fire. “Violence and military solutions and collective punishment will breed violence and more hatred … and it will not provide no peace and security,” Erekat said.
Nabil Abu Rdeineh, Abbas spokesman, said Friday that military operations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank “will negatively impact the negotiations, and we warn against the continuation of this policy.”
Palestinian negotiators have urged the United States to stop Israel from “sabotaging” the negotiations, he said. UNRWA’s leading official in Gaza, John Ging, said Israel had informed his office that the crossings would be closed for “several days.” On a regularly working day an average of 120 trucks of food and humanitarian supplies enter Gaza, Ging said. Dror said that Gazans had enough food so that no one would go hungry. “There is a government decision that there will not be a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Dror said.
Israeli officials will meet early next week to reevaluate the situation and decide whether to reopen the passages, he said.
About 9,000 cows have been allowed into the Gaza Strip in the past two months, enough for several weeks more, Dror said.
At least 30 Palestinians have been killed since the violence escalated Tuesday. Most were armed militants.
Hamas and other groups have fired more than 150 rockets and mortars since Tuesday, according to the Israeli military. The strikes caused no serious injuries, but have further traumatized battered Israeli residents. Twelve Israelis have been killed by the rockets in the past six years.
While ratcheting up its military response in Gaza, Israel has scaled back operations in the West Bank as it talks peace. But some army raids continue, especially in the town of Nablus, considered a hotbed of militant activity. Early Friday, Israeli troops in Nablus killed a wanted Palestinian militant from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group tied to Abbas’ Fatah movement, medics said. The military confirmed the raid.