Gaza endures fourth day of Israeli blockade

Gaza endured a fourth day of hardship on Monday as Israel vowed to maintain a punishing blockade in response to rocket fire from the Hamas-run territory, despite increasing international concern over a developing humanitarian crisis.

The European Union slammed what it termed the ”collective punishment” of impoverished Gaza’s 1,5-million residents, while the United Nations warned it would be forced to stop distributing food to hundreds of thousands of people unless Israel opened the crossings to allow in supplies.

”If the present situation pertains, on Wednesday or Thursday we are going to have to stop food distribution to 860 000 people,” Christopher Gunness, a spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), said.

Generators hummed across Gaza City after the territory’s sole power plant shut down late on Sunday when it ran out of fuel, plunging entire blocks into darkness.

With Gaza crossings closed and fuel for generators slowly running out, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that hospitals in the territory only had a few days’ worth of fuel to run their generators.

”There are reserves for two, maximum three days for the functioning” of hospitals in Gaza, ICRC spokesperson in Jerusalem, Michele Mercier, said.

”Hospital medication reserves continue to decrease,” she said. ”If our truck with medicine does not enter Gaza tomorrow [Tuesday], this can cause a major problem.”

But Israel dismissed warnings of a humanitarian meltdown, saying Hamas was exaggerating the situation in the territory that had reserves.

”As far as I’m concerned, all of Gaza’s residents can walk, and have no fuel for their cars because they are governed by a murderous terrorist regime,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in remarks broadcast on army radio.

Meeting visiting Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, Olmert said: ”Hamas is deliberately intensifying the crisis in the Gaza Strip in order to create pressure from the international community on Israel.”

”Israel will not allow a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” a senior government official quoted him as saying. ”But the population has to understand that as long as Hamas rules there, we will provide them only with the bare minimum.”

EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner hit out against the ”collective punishment of the people of Gaza. I urge the Israeli authorities to restart fuel supplies and open the crossings for the passage of humanitarian and commercial supplies.”

Gunness said that Gaza faced ”a desperate humanitarian situation that continues to deteriorate alarmingly”, while the main UN spokesperson in Jerusalem, Richard Miron, called on the Israelis to make a ”positive decision later today [Monday] to allow fuel shipments and medicines into Gaza”.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the crossings into Gaza closed late on Thursday, saying the move was aimed at pressuring militants inside to stop firing rockets and mortars into Israel.

Over the past week Israeli raids in Gaza have killed 37 people, mostly militants, while gunmen have launched about 200 rockets or mortar rounds into Israel, lightly wounding at least 10 people.

The Gaza closure came amid peak winter demand for fuel and with Gaza already reeling from previous restrictions that Israel imposed after Islamist Hamas violently took power in the territory seven months ago.

Amid mounting international concern, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak phoned Olmert to warn ”of the deteriorating humanitarian situation resulting from the blockade”.

Arab League officials gathered in Cairo for an emergency meeting to discuss the lockdown after chief Amr Mussa warned Israeli actions could hamper the revived Middle East peace talks.

Israel’s arch-foe, Iran, called on foreign ministers of Islamic states to hold an emergency meeting on the Gaza crisis, and in Lebanon’s largest refugee camp about 350 demonstrators protested the Israeli lockdown by setting fire to Israeli and US flags and chanting ”revenge, revenge”.

Hamas said the Israeli measures amounted to a ”slow death” for the territory and called for international intervention, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas also ”called on the Israeli government to lift its blockade of Gaza immediately”. — AFP



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