Israel Briefly Eases Blockade On Gaza

A Palestinian boy holding the Muslims holy book the Quran in one hand and a replica rifle in the other, during a protest against Israeli tactics in the Gaza Strip in al-Yarmouk refugee camp a major refugee camp some 6 miles south of Damascus Monday Jan. 21, 2008. Some 1,500 people headed by Hamas deputy leader Mousa Abou Marzouk and members of other Damascusbased Palestinian factions took part in the rally.
AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi
Israel decided to allow one shipment of fuel, food and medicine into Gaza, the first crack in a blockade it imposed on the impoverished territory last week in response to a spike in rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

After Gaza's Hamas government and aid agencies warned of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis following the shutdown of Gaza's only electricity plant, Israel agreed to open the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza on Tuesday, but only once. Israel closed all its crossings on Thursday.

The power outage mainly affected Gaza City, which receives its electricity from the closed plant. Other areas of Gaza are supplied directly by Israel and Egypt, neither of which cut off service.

"We think Hamas got the message," said Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel after Israel announced it was easing the closure. "As we have seen in the past couple of days, when they want to stop the rockets, they can." Two rockets fell in Israel on Monday, compared to dozens a day last week.

Mekel said enough fuel would be shipped to power the Gaza electric plant for a week, as well as fuel for hospital generators and cooking gas, along with 50 truckloads of humanitarian aid, including medicine.

CBS News correspondent Robert Berger reports Hamas is vowing to continue rocket attacks and Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed the decision to ease the blockade. "This does not mean the end of the siege on Gaza," Zuhri said, pledging to continue to fight "until we break the siege."

Raising a possible solution, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered to take control of the Gaza crossings from the Palestinian side. One of the reasons Israel closed the crossings was its refusal to deal with Hamas officials in Gaza.

Hamas official Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas would study the proposal. If implemented, it would give Abbas his first foothold in Gaza since Hamas ran his forces out in June. Israeli officials refused to comment.

Even after agreeing to the shipment, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak maintained a tough tone. Speaking at the annual Herzliya Conference on security, Barak called for increased pressure on Gaza. He said he was prepared to hit Gaza in order to restore calm in Israeli towns battered by rockets from Gaza. "I care more about our quiet than their quiet," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert strongly defended the blockade. He told legislators from his Kadima Party, "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."

Gaza's Hamas government issued emotional appeals to the Arab world, and demanded that Egypt open its border with Gaza to allow in supplies. "We are asking Arab and Muslim nations not to leave the Palestinians alone to face the terrorist country of America and the Zionist entity," said Gaza's Hamas strongman, Mahmoud Zahar, in a televised speech.

During the past seven months, since Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza, Egypt joined Israel in severely restricting access to Gaza, largely keeping its border terminal closed. An opening of the Gaza-Egypt border would mark a victory for Hamas, enabling it to claim credit for restoring the flow of supplies and stabilizing its rule.

However, it appeared unlikely Egypt would comply, since it's concerned about a spillover of Hamas-style militancy into its territory if the border is open. Instead, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Barak and urged him to ease restrictions, and Barak agreed.

Hamas organized several protests to underscore the suffering of ordinary people, while Israel charged Hamas was manufacturing an artificial crisis to gain sympathy.

Sixty empty fuel trucks lined up along the Gaza-Egypt border by gas station owners who demanded that Egypt and Israel lift the closure. Also at the border, hundreds staged a march, including doctors in white coats, Hamas lawmakers and drivers with their ambulances. "Why are Arab countries partners to this embargo?" said Marwan Abu Ras, a Hamas lawmaker.

On Monday, hospital generators in Gaza City still had enough fuel, but a U.N. agency warned they would run out in a matter of days if supplies are not replenished.

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror and other Israeli officials charged that Hamas was creating a false crisis and could resume the electricity if it wanted.