Israel declares Gaza "enemy entity" as Rice visits

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, during a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to prepare for a U.S.-led 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.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June after fighting the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has been preparing defenses against a possible Israeli offensive.

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 gave no starting date for the sanctions and said they would be implemented after Israeli authorities had examined the legal and humanitarian ramifications.

“We are going to ask the Americans to pressure Israel to refrain from taking such action,” Palestinian Information Minister Riyad al-Malki said in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Rice will meet Abbas on Thursday.

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Asked about the Israeli move, Rice told a news conference that Washington considered Hamas to be a “hostile entity” but pledged the United States “would not abandon the innocent Palestinians”, a reference to humanitarian aid.

Faced with frequent cross-border rocket salvoes which the Israeli military has been unable to stop, Olmert has been under pressure from right-wing members of his coalition to order a broad ground operation in the Gaza Strip to confront militants.

With U.S. encouragement, Israel has said it is keen to bolster Abbas in the West Bank since he dismissed a Hamas-led government three months ago. Defense Minster Ehud Barak said after meeting Rice that Israel would start to remove some West Bank security barriers to answer Palestinian concerns.

The 24 barriers to be removed may fall short of hopes among Abbas’s supporters for a major easing of curbs on movement posed by more than 500 checkpoints and other obstacles in the territory.

Barak said in a statement that security for Israelis was his priority and further moves would be considered in time.

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Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who also met Rice, said that in Gaza “all the needs that are more than the humanitarian needs will not be supplied by Israel”.

The security cabinet opted instead several weeks ago to weigh cutting power to the area, sanctions Israeli officials acknowledged could be seen as a violation of international law.

By formally defining Gaza as enemy territory, Israel could argue that it cannot be bound by international law to supply utilities to its 1.5 million people. Israel withdrew troops and settlers in 2005 but Palestinians say Gaza is still occupied because Israel controls its air, land and sea borders.

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A U.N. official said: “Any action to cut off electricity and other essentials is against international humanitarian law.”

U.S. officials said Rice had not been aware of the Israeli plan for Gaza but insisted it would not jeopardize her mission.

After Rice dined with Olmert, a senior U.S. official hailed what he described as “serious discussion about fundamental issues” between Israel and Abbas’s administration in Ramallah.

Both sides have used different and potentially contradictory language to describe what they hope will come out of the meeting near Washington, probably in November. Abbas has insisted on an agreement on core issues for a Palestinian state, while Olmert has said it may achieve only a declaration of principles.

“Labels are really not a very good way to capture what is going on,” the U.S. official said.

“It could range from zero to a full-blown agreement. They are not in a position yet to put a label on it.”

Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Alastair Macdonald and Adam Entous in Jerusalem, Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza