New blockade squeezes Gaza residents

Israel refused to reopen crossings or allow crucial fuel supplies into Gaza on Monday, despite UN warnings that vital food aid could be suspended within days.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Defiant: Palestinian youths held a protest Sunday in front of UN offices in Gaza City calling for an end to Israeli attacks and the current blockade.
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    A Palestinian woman used a lantern for light as she worked in her kitchen after electricity was cut Sunday in Gaza. In response to a recent increase in rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel refused to reopen crossings or allow crucial fuel supplies into the territory on Monday.
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    A Palestinian man walks past empty bottles of cooking gas in a station in Gaza. The main power plant in Gaza Strip was shut down after Israel blocked fuel supplies and closed the border in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks that targeted Israeli towns.
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Yusuf Arafat says Dec. 19, the day his first child, Mara, was born, was the happiest of his life. But since doctors found Mara was suffering from a potentially deadly condition he says he's been "living a nightmare."

Young Mara is seeking key medical care she can't get in the Gaza Strip, which has now been cut off from all but basic humanitarian supplies by Israel, in retaliation for rocket fire at Israeli towns.

Doctors there say Mara needs to be treated at a pediatric hospital in Tel Aviv, but the family has been struggling, and failing, to get the needed permissions to enter Israel for almost a month now, while Mara's condition deteriorates in an incubator at Gaza's Al Shifa hospital.

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Her fate is now controlled by a conflict that her parents can barely comprehend, the decision by militants inside Gaza to continue to lob rockets at Israel, and Israel's decision to take a tough line against all of Gaza's citizens, not just those who attack it.

Israel cut off fuel supplies to Gaza this week. The move has already led Palestinian authorities to shut down the lone power station in the territories and has medical officials warning that their supplies of diesel for their generators are running low, forcing them to start making choices about whether they should cut power to wards like the one Mara's in, or in other locations where surgeries are being carried out. A Gaza health official alleges that 60 Palestinians have died in the past month because they couldn't get out of the strip for medical care.

While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised on Monday he would allow humanitarian aid to flow to Gaza, he told legislators he was still in a tough frame of mind. "As far as I'm concerned Gaza residents will walk, without gas for their cars, because they have a murderous, terrorist regime that doesn't let people in southern Israel live in peace."

Whether the blockade will have the effect desired by Israel – of dislodging the Islamist Hamas government that has controlled the strip since last June – is unclear. But what is certain is that Gaza's already low living standards will deteriorate as long as the current course is pursued.

The current logic also turns conventional wisdom about fighting terrorism on its head, according to critics of Israel's collective punishment tactics.

While it's often said that economic desperation can fuel violence, Israel's current course is one in which creating such desperation is hoped to end violence, argues Hatem Oweida, a Hamas official in the economy ministry.

"All of our industries are collapsing because of shortages – 90 percent of our factories are shut and we blame Israel," he says. "Is this going to lead to peace?"

Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Monday that Israel will continue to hold peace talks with Fatah, the Palestinian faction that governs the West Bank and that, unlike Hamas, recognizes Israel's right to exist.

"Israel is the only place in the world that supplies electricity to terrorist organizations that launch rockets at it in return," she said. "Life for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is not easy because there is terrorism there, and this should be crystal clear: Hamas can change the lives of the people in Gaza in an instant, if it ceases terrorism."

Almost all of Gaza's bakeries were shut on Monday, and the United Nations – which distributes the food relief that 90 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents rely on – says it may have to halt food distribution by Friday, because they're running out of plastic bags and fuel.

Mr. Yusuf, a welder who lost his job after the Hamas takeover because most construction in Gaza stopped after Israel cut off cement shipments, says the family has been close to getting Mara out on three occasions, only to be tripped up by the Kafka-esque procedures for leaving the territory.

"The Tel Aviv hospital told us they could take us Jan. 10, for instance. But then the security clearance only came through on the 11th. The hospital told us that they didn't have a space for us that day, and that we're not allowed to use the security clearance unless we have a guaranteed spot at the hospital."

Khaled Radi, the spokesman for the Hamas-run Gaza health authority, says the ministry has enough diesel to run "three, maybe four, days" without fresh shipments. "We've been told quite clearly by Israel: Stop the rockets, and then we'll send supplies. But I have no control over the rockets."

Ayman Sisa, the director of the dialysis department at Shifa Hospital, says he's had to cut back weekly treatments for patients from three times a week to two, because 10 of his machines have broken down and he hasn't been able to import spare parts. "A lot of these people would be dead in a week without their treatments," he argues. "But if more machines go down, we'll have to cut back further."

Anwar Khali, the doctor currently treating Mara in Gaza says the hospital ran out of an important medicine and that the fate of Mara is now largely "out of our hands. She's not alone. We had a 4-year-old boy turned down by Israel to travel for surgery. When we asked why, they said "security reasons."

Mr. Arafat says he's never been involved in politics, and adds that he would support stopping the rockets – or anything else – if that would let his daughter gets the care she needs.

But he also says "angry doesn't tell the half of it'' when asked how he feels.

"I lost my job, and now my wife, and I may lose our daughter," he says. "We're caged up like beasts."

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