Israel's sudden Gaza dilemma

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

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.

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.

A Hamas official says that Ismail Haniyeh – who maintains that he is still prime minister after his dismissal by Mr. Abbas – has expressed a willingness to deal with Israel on the level of everyday practicalities.

"Prime Minister Haniyeh already gave instructions to all his ministers to deal with Israeli counterparts for logistical and practical support that [is necessary] to meet Palestinian needs," says Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

But everyone Israel used to coordinate with on the Palestinian side is no longer there, says Mr. Regev. "Are we supposed to work with militants, when these are the same militants who are holding Gilad Shalit?" (Israeli army Corporal Shalit was kidnapped outside Gaza about a year ago.)

Where to draw the line between humanitarian support and averting a deeper crisis is a question that Israel and Western donors seem deeply unsure of. Scott Lasensky, an expert on the use of aid in conflict resolution, says that all doors are best left open.

"Even in the US, we're seeing this tendency, politically, to want to write off Gaza for the time being. I think that will be a mistake, because it could become a more radicalized area and yet another outpost for Iranian influence right there on the Mediterranean," says Dr. Lasensky, a senior research associate at the US Institute for Peace in Washington.

"You don't have to engage directly with Hamas, but you can send signals that we're watching," he says. "There should be a sense that international aid is tied to how they govern and how they treat Israel."

Gaza's situation mirrors the sort of problem that the international community faced in Somalia and North Korea. "How do you do aid delivery where there's a hostile government in place? There's no way around the basic dilemma of trying to deliver aid and, at the same time, undermine the regime," Lasensky says.

In the meantime, the main UN agency involved in assistance in Gaza says that it has enough food to assist the 860,000 Palestinians it helps on a regular basis for the next 10 days. The situation, says John Ging, director of field operations in Gaza, will only be alleviated if the main commercial crossing into Gaza at Karni is reopened. "In anticipation of the deterioration, people are panic buying, snapping up basic food commodities and fuel," he says. "We hope solutions will be found very quickly, or [the situation] will deteriorate."

In the relative calm after last week's violence, Gazans have been going out again – and hoarding food in anticipation of shortages.

At the Al-Ailet Bakery in Gaza City Monday, a shop that normally has one or two customers at a time, 30 people crowded in, clamoring for bread. Here, as in other places, shop owners have started giving out numbered tickets to prevent fighting over whose turn it is. "I have enough flour for at least 10 days," says Kamal Jaber, a baker. "We're working around the clock. But the people here are asking for more than we can produce in a day."

• Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City contributed reporting for this article.

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