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Israel's sudden Gaza dilemma

Potential humanitarian crisis? The UN says food will run out in about 10 days if Gaza stays sealed.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2007


Unprepared for the Hamas coup last week that routed the Fatah faction from Gaza, Israel is now faced with the quandary of what to do with the sudden emergence of an Islamic militant ministate on its borders.

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The dilemma for Israel, which supplies or allows the shipment of food, fuel, and other goods to Gaza, is whether it should encumber or enable Hamas. Some here argue for engagement; others want isolation.

Hanging in the balance is the potential for a humanitarian crisis for the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza, a majority of whom already live in poverty and are effectively shut off from the outside world. If all of the entry points to Gaza remain closed, the United Nations says, there will be food shortages in about 10 days. If demands for fuel, electricity, clean water, and medical supplies are left unmet, that could trigger a slew of health and environmental problems.

"We want to work to make sure aid and foodstuffs can flow. Obviously, the whole international community has to adjust to this reality and find solutions to the humanitarian issues," says Mark Regev, the spokesman of the Israeli foreign ministry. "Israel has no interest whatsoever in creating even greater hardship in Gaza."

But it does have an interest in seeing an outpouring of aid for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader who dismissed his national unity government after Hamas took Gaza last week.

The implicit message to Palestinians: Life is likely to get better under the moderate Palestinian Authority (PA) run by Fatah in the West Bank and a lot worse for Palestinians living under Hamas in Gaza.

An Israeli right-wing politician, Avigdor Lieberman, argues that Gaza's suffering is no longer the Jewish state's problem. "The responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip has to pass to NATO, and the responsibility for the economy and humanitarian needs must pass to the European Union, and the sooner the better," he wrote in the Maariv newspaper.

Gaza's economy has been dependent on Israel since it was occupied in the Six-Day War of 40 years ago. Even after the "disengagement" in August 2005, in which Israel withdrew all settlers and soldiers from Gaza, it continues to need Israel both as a supplier of raw materials and a gateway for export and import.

The European Union (EU) announced Monday that it would resume direct aid to the PA, but will maintain its economic embargo on any contacts with Hamas. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said that aid to a Hamas-run Gaza would continue, but only by sending money through the UN. For Israel's part, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he will release $562 million in customs and tax revenue that it had been withholding in order to prevent funds from going to Hamas.

Amid the violence last week, the main provider of fuel to Gaza, the Israeli company Dor Alon, stopped the supply lines because of a lack of anyone to coordinate with on the Palestinian side. On Monday, however, the energy company announced that it would renew the sale of gas to stations in Gaza. Later this week, Israel's minister of infrastructure is expected to hold meetings with all of the companies that supply utilities to Gaza – including water, electricity, and fuel – to discuss whether Israel can continue being a supplier to Gaza at all. It issued an order Monday to stop cargo shipments.