JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel declared the Gaza Strip an “enemy entity” on Wednesday and said it would reduce its fuel and power supplies to the Hamas-run territory in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.
Hamas described the move, coinciding with a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to promote a U.S.-proposed Middle East peace conference, as a declaration of war. “They aim to starve our people and force them to bow and accept humiliating formulas that could emerge from the so-called November peace conference,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said his security cabinet approved the “enemy entity” classification and there would be “limitations on imports to the Gaza Strip and a reduction in the supply of fuel and electricity”.
It said the sanctions would be implemented after Israeli authorities examined the legal and humanitarian ramifications. “This allows Israel to order a number of administrative sanctions against the Gaza Strip, of course on condition they don’t cross the red line in terms of inflicting humanitarian damage,” said Public Security Minister Avi Dichter.
Olmert has been under pressure from right-wing members of his government to order a broad military ground operation in the Gaza Strip to try to curb frequent cross-border rocket salvoes.
The security cabinet, however, opted several weeks ago to explore the possibility of cutting power to the area instead, sanctions that Israeli officials acknowledged could be seen as a violation of international law.
By formally defining the Gaza Strip as an enemy entity, Israel could argue that it cannot be bound by international law governing the administration of occupied territory to supply utilities to the population of 1.5 million.
Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Palestinians contend it is still under Israeli occupation because Israel controls its borders, air space and coastal waters.
Hamas Islamists seized control of the territory in June after routing fighters from President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.
According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Gaza’s population uses approximately 200 megawatts of electricity, out of which 120 are provided directly from Israeli power lines, 17 are delivered from Egypt and 65 are produced at a plant in Gaza.
The territory and its power station are also dependent on Israeli fuel supplies, some of them funded by the European Union.
Beginning a visit to the region, Rice said “critical issues” would be tackled at the Middle East conference, a meeting that Palestinians hope will move them closer to statehood.
Speaking to reporters on her flight to Israel, she said she hoped her brief trip would build momentum ahead of the gathering and bridge differences on core matters — borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. “Everyone expects it (the conference) to be serious and substantive and everybody expects it to address critical issues. We don’t expect anything less,” she said. “The idea that somehow the president of the United States would call an international meeting so that we could all have a photo-op is very far-fetched,” said Rice, who will be in the Middle East for little more than 24 hours.