January 21, 2008 / 1:45 PM / 11 years ago

Israel agrees to ease Gaza blockade after protests

(Updates with Barak, EU and U.N. officials)

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Israel agreed to allow some fuel, medicine and food into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Tuesday, at least temporarily easing a blockade that has plunged much of the territory into darkness and sparked international protests.

Monday’s decision by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak means the European Union will be allowed to deliver a week’s supply of industrial fuel to Gaza’s main power plant, which shut down on Sunday. The EU, which funds fuel shipments to the plant, confirmed the delivery would take place on Tuesday.

Israel closed its border crossings with Gaza on Friday in what it said was a bid to make Palestinian militants stop firing rockets into southern Israel. Large parts of Gaza, home to 1.5 million people, have since lost power as hospitals cancelled non-essential surgery and local residents stockpiled food.

The EU and international agencies called the Israeli measures "collective punishment", which is banned under the Geneva Conventions.

Israel countered that conditions in Gaza never reached crisis levels and accused Hamas of exaggerating the impact of the closure.

It is unclear whether Barak will allow additional fuel shipments and medical supplies into Gaza, which Hamas Islamists seized by force in June after routing forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli government officials said future shipments would hinge on regular assessments of Gaza’s humanitarian needs and on the number of rockets fired by Palestinian militants into the Jewish state.

"We are not committing on how often we will do this," Defence Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said.

Barak said Israel would not ease pressure on militants. "We will do everything to make them understand we will do anything to restore quiet," he said.

In addition to 2.2 million litres of industrial fuel for the power plant, Israel will allow into Gaza 500,000 litres of diesel for generators and a supply of cooking gas, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said.

Israel will also allow 50 trucks of food and medicine into the aid-dependent territory, but restrictions on petrol for cars will remain in place.


"As far as I’m concerned, all the residents of Gaza can walk and have no fuel for their cars, because they have a murderous terrorist regime that doesn’t allow people in the south of Israel to live in peace," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said before Barak’s decision was announced.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said it welcomed any signs that Israel was easing its cordon.

"But this drip, drip, drip, here-today-gone-tomorrow... approach to humanitarian assistance makes it very difficult for UNRWA to sustain in the long term a humanitarian programme to nearly a million people," spokesman Christopher Gunness said.

Barak’s decision followed warnings by international agencies that Gaza hospitals would run out of drugs and generator fuel in a few days unless Israel allowed goods through the crossings.

"We hope Hamas has got the message," said Mekel, citing a decline in the number of rocket attacks since the weekend. "When they want to reduce the number of rockets, they can do it."

More than 45 rockets were fired into Israel on Friday and Saturday, while only five were fired on Sunday, the army said.

But Gaza militants have vowed to continue the rocket attacks, and Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said "pressure must continue until the siege is completely lifted".

The Gaza power plant normally provides only 30 percent of the territory’s electricity, but its closure affected a far greater proportion of the population because of the way the power grid system works. The bulk of Gaza’s electricity, which comes from Israel and Egypt, was not cut off, Israel said. (Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Adam Entous, Avida Landau and Rebecca Harrison in Jerusalem; Writing by Adam Entous and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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