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Israel orders closure of Gaza crossings

Moin al-Wadia lay on his hospital bed beneath a window on Friday, soaking up the last of the day’s winter sunshine. Around him sat his family, with boxes of sweet pastries and bouquets of flowers, as they tried to explain the growing anger and frustration of the people of Gaza.

Wadia had been working at a mechanics’ market on Tuesday morning when the Israeli military launched a major ground incursion, beginning a new round of intense fighting in Gaza. When he heard the sound of gunfire, he began to leave but was knocked to the ground by the force of an Israeli shell. It sliced off his left foot and shattered his right leg, and shrapnel lacerated his stomach.

Doctors at the Shifa hospital have told him his best chance for any kind of recovery is to leave for treatment abroad, perhaps in Jordan. But Israel closed the crossings into Gaza on Friday and prevented even United Nations trucks from delivering food aid.

It was the latest stage in an intensified Israeli operation in Gaza, but one that now effectively prevents food assistance coming in and people and exports going out. The UN refugee agency said the latest closure left it unable to deliver 15 truckloads of aid on Friday and warned of growing despair in Gaza, where 80% of the population already relies on UN food.

”It is my right to live and for my wife and children to live,” Wadia said. ”But the ordinary people are getting lost in this dispute. Of course we have to stop these rockets. Only a peace agreement can put an end to this violence and destruction.” His wife, Wassima, said: ”We just don’t know what is happening. People talk about peace, but we see the opposite.”

On Friday night, the Gaza death toll over the past four days stood at 34, among them at least 10 civilians.

An Israeli warplane bombed the offices of the Palestinian Interior Ministry on Friday, flattening one wing of the empty building, killing a woman attending a wedding party next door and wounding at least 46 other civilians, some of them children playing football in the street, hospital staff said.

Border crossings

Also on Friday, Israel sealed all border crossings with the Gaza Strip in an attempt to pressure Hamas to halt the rocket fire, but the attacks continued, with 16 missiles falling in southern Israel, including one that damaged a day-care centre, although it caused no casualties.

Palestinian militants have fired more than 160 makeshift rockets into southern Israel and on Tuesday shot dead an Ecuadorian kibbutz volunteer.

Israel’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said no shipment would cross into Gaza without his personal approval. A spokesperson for the Defence Ministry said the closure was a ”signal” to Hamas, the Islamist group that won Palestinian elections two years ago and last summer seized full control of Gaza. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, warned that his military operations in Gaza would continue ”without compromise, without concessions and without mercy”.

The fighting, the worst for more than a year, raises serious questions about the viability of recently renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

On the other side of Gaza City on Friday, Ahmad Yazagi received mourners at a funeral tent near his home. A few hundred metres away at midday on Wednesday, his two brothers, Mohammad (27) and Amr (38), and his eight-year-old nephew Amir were killed when their car was struck by an Israeli missile. The Israeli military later admitted it was a mistake, but Yazagi said his family had received no explanation, apology or offer of compensation.

”What is our guilt? We ask to live in peace and we ask them to leave us alone,” he said, surrounded by family and neighbours. ”With one hand the Israelis talk about peace, with the other they continue fighting.”

The deaths left Yazagi (26) the sole wage earner for his extended family. He earns 1 000 shekels (about R1 860) a month as a temporary labourer at the health ministry and inherits the R206 000 debt of his brother, who was setting up a scrap-metal business.

The UN says about half the strip’s 1,5-million people no longer have access to fresh water, because Israel has restricted fuel supplies, which in turn halts pumps and reduces electricity production. Although the UN has food for the next two months in its warehouses, the closure of crossings has limited supplies and forced up prices. — Â

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