Israel's newest bid to isolate Hamas pushes Gaza to crisis

JERUSALEM — Israel has pushed the Gaza Strip to the brink of a humanitarian crisis by cutting off the supply of most aid, choking off the flow of fuel for Gaza's only power plant and restricting the transfer of most supplies.

Beyond that, Israel is barring most diplomats, aid workers and international journalists from going into Gaza — an unprecedented and sweeping ban that's entering its third week.

"It's very precarious," John Ging, director of the United Nations refugee program in Gaza, said Friday. "It's really a matter of brinksmanship and we're in a perpetual state of collapse."

The new crackdown comes as Israeli leaders are increasingly acknowledging what critics have long argued: That they need to develop different strategies to try to change the political realities in Gaza.

"Everybody involved in this is advocating very strongly for a change in approach of punitive sanctions through closure of the crossings," Ging said. "It's devastating from a human perspective, but also for the prospects for security, prosperity and peace."

When Hamas seized military control of the Gaza Strip last year, some Israeli strategists began pushing the idea of sealing the borders and washing their hands of all responsibility for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in enveloping isolation.

Israeli leaders quickly shelved the idea amid general recognition that it was unrealistic and might backfire.

However, Israel is now effectively testing out the concept in an unprecedented new attempt to undermine Hamas hardliners who've solidified their hold and increased their influence since routing Palestinian Authority forces in a decisive military showdown 17 months ago.

If anything, critics say, efforts by the U.S. and Israel to isolate Hamas in the past two years have backfired. Both nations helped the Palestinian Authority hold democratic elections in 2006 that propelled Hamas into political control for the first time.

Israeli and American attempts to marginalize the Hamas-led government unless it explicitly renounced its stated goal of destroying Israel never led to a change by the group's policy. And U.S.-backed efforts to train and equip Palestinian Authority fighters loyal to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas backfired when Hamas routed the unprepared forces last year in Gaza.

The Hamas takeover led to angry calls from some Israeli leaders for their country to sever all links to Gaza, close the borders and stop supplying electricity.

At the time, the idea was dismissed as impractical.

Before long, Israel negotiated, via Egypt, a six-month cease-fire with Hamas that, until this month, had brought relative calm to Gaza and southern Israel.

As most of the world was focused on America's historic election on Nov. 4, Israeli ground forces broke the ceasefire by entering Gaza to destroy a tunnel the military said was set to be used in a kidnapping operation inside Israel.

The Israeli operation triggered new rounds of rocket fire from Gaza militants, Israeli air strikes, and ongoing closure of the border crossings.

Inside Gaza, power is being rationed and blackouts envelop some neighborhoods for 16 hours a day. Restaurants and bakeries have shut down because they have neither fuel nor food. Families are paying black market prices to get increasingly scarce cooking fuel. And the U.N. had to temporarily halt food deliveries to 750,000 Palestinians.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has called the Israeli policy "unacceptable" and urged Israel to re-open the borders.

Israeli leaders say they will make sure enough food and fuel get into Gaza to avoid a full-scale humanitarian crisis. And they repeatedly state that the current crisis can come to an end — just as soon as Gaza militants stop firing rockets into southern Israel.

"We're in a new situation," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "You cannot have normal functioning of the crossings as long as they continue to fire rockets at us."

Human rights groups tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to challenge previous government shutdowns of the Gaza borders. At the time, Israel's Supreme Court said the steps were a justified response to persistent rocket attacks by Gaza militants.

While the court rejected arguments that Israel's border closings amounted to collective punishment, U.N. officials contend that the tactic is empowering extremists who argue that talks with Israel have produced nothing good for Gaza.

"It creates more misery and frustration that feeds into the extremists who say there is no other way but violence," said the U.N.'s Ging.

The Foreign Press Association, of which McClatchy is a member, is preparing a legal challenge of Israel's two-week-old ban on reporters entering Gaza. The association, which represents most major international media outlets working in Israel, said it would file suit in the Supreme Court on Sunday if Israel does not open the border so journalists can go to Gaza.

(Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamdan contributed to this article from Gaza City.)


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