Lights back on in Gaza after Israel eases blockade

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Egyptian security personnel used a water cannon and riot police to disperse Palestinian women, supporters of Hamas, during a demonstration Tuesday at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of Palestinian protesters briefly broke through the Egypt-Gaza border terminal Tuesday, pushing back helmeted Egyptian riot police who fired in the air to try to contain the crowd. (Khalil Hamra ~ Associated Press)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel sent fuel to Gaza's power plant Tuesday, easing its five-day blockade of the Palestinian territory amid growing international concern about a humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. warned Israel not to add to the hardship for ordinary Palestinians but blamed the problem on Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers. Israel imposed the siege in response to increasing rocket attacks on its border communities by Gaza militants.

Despite the easing of the closure, Palestinian militants fired 19 rockets toward Israel on Tuesday, the military said, up from just two on Monday.

The lights were back on in most of Gaza City by Tuesday afternoon after a blackout that lasted almost two days. But Gazans still vented their anger.

Hundreds of Hamas supporters briefly broke through the Gaza-Egypt border and clashed with Egyptian riot police who fired in the air, injuring 70 people on both sides. The protesters hurled insults at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, calling him a coward.

Israel and Egypt have banned most crossings in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in June. Egypt has kept its border closed, tacitly supporting Israel's blockade out of fear of a spillover of Hamas-style militancy to its territory.

Pictures of blacked-out Gaza City, children marching mournfully with candles and people lining up at closed bakeries evoked urgent appeals from governments, aid agencies and the U.N. for an end to the closure, though Israel maintained all along that Hamas created an artificial crisis.

The Defense Ministry ruled late Tuesday that 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel will be transferred into Gaza daily, but the crossings will remain closed to other goods and people until further notice.

Throughout the closure, which cut power to a third of Gaza's 1.5 million people, hospitals kept running on generators. But most bakeries shut down, and long lines formed at those that were open.

A shipment of cooking gas sent in by Israel on Tuesday sold out in an hour.

Gaza City baker Haj Salman, 68, who uses wood to run his oven, did a booming business. Customers lined up to have homemade bread dough baked in his oven.

One of those waiting for his bread was 22-year-old Sami Othman, whose father, a taxi driver, has been idled by the fuel shortage. Othman said he thought the people of Gaza were being squeezed by the confrontation between Hamas and the rival Fatah.

"They are using us for fuel for their internal fighting and political conflicts," he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni blamed Hamas.

"I am not among those who care whether this or that group fired a rocket," she told the annual Herzliya Conference on security. "Hamas has control of the territory, and Hamas is responsible."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration has spoken to Israeli officials "about the importance of not allowing a humanitarian crisis to unfold." Israeli officials were receptive, she said, adding that she too blames Hamas for the situation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross called for Israel to lift the blockade and prevent a collapse of health and sanitary services.

"Deliveries of essential humanitarian goods must be secured in the long run to prevent more hardship and to avoid the collapse of the already fragile infrastructure," said spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas.

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