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Rice: We Won't Abandon "Innocent" In Gaza

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the United States "will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza," shortly after Israel declared the territory to be an enemy entity in order to cut off power and fuel supplies to the coastal strip.

At the same time, Rice said Gaza, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas group, "is a hostile entity to us as well."

Israel's Security Cabinet - the country's top political and defense ministers - did not set a date for a cutoff. A statement from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Israel did not intend to provoke a humanitarian crisis.

A cutoff of vital supplies would be the most severe of the retaliatory measures Israel has taken recently against Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. Gaza is almost entirely dependent on Israeli suppliers for power, water and fuel.

The Israeli government has come under growing pressure to halt the near-daily rocket fire. With Israel's current policy of air strikes and brief ground incursions ineffective, several Israeli leaders have suggested taking "nonmilitary action."

Israel hopes the measures will put pressure on the Islamic Hamas group, which controls Gaza, to stop militants from firing rockets. "The objective is to weaken Hamas," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Wednesday's meeting, according to one participant.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, traveling with Rice, emphasized the line in the Israeli government's statement that said they did not want to "negatively effect the humanitarian efforts" in the increasingly isolated territory.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel's plan to further isolate the Gaza Strip.

"This oppressive decision will only strengthen the chocking embargo imposed on 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, increase their suffering and deepen their tragedy," Abbas' office said in a statement Wednesday.

Abbas is locked in a bitter rivalry with Hamas, which overran his forces from his Fatah movement and seized control of Gaza in June.

CBS News correspondent Robert Berger reports that Rice is in the Mideast to help Israel and the Palestinians hammer out a document on Palestinian statehood to be presented at the a fall peace conference in Washington. She will try to narrow the gaps on core issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and final borders.

Rice will have her work cut out for her, reports Berger. Israel wants a vague declaration while the Palestinians are pushing for a binding agreement.

Even before she landed, Palestinian officials said President Mahmoud Abbas would ask her not to set a firm date for the conference until it is clear he and Olmert can agree upon a joint statement setting out their goals.

"President Abbas will ask Rice tomorrow not to set a specific date for the conference until they see the possibilities of having an agreement with Israel," an official in Abbas' office said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because Abbas and Rice had not yet met.

Barak also said that Israel is moving closer to a large-scale military operation in Gaza - an option that would likely mean heavy casualties on both sides. "Every day that passes brings us closer to an operation in Gaza," Barak was quoted as saying. He said an "array of options" would be considered before a major invasion.

At the same time, Barak said Israel hopes to strengthen the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who installed a pro-Western Cabinet in the West Bank after the Hamas takeover.

Israel withdrew from Gaza two years ago, but Palestinian militants have continued to fire rockets into southern Israel. The crude weapons have killed 12 people in southern Israel in the past seven years, injured dozens more and disrupted daily life in the region.

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June, Israel has closed Gaza's border crossings almost entirely, allowing in only humanitarian aid. The sanctions have crushed Gaza's exporters and ground the local economy to a standstill. A cutoff in power, water and fuel would deepen the hardship.

While several ministers have expressed support for cutting off the supply of resources to the territory, such action would draw international condemnation. Olmert and the military are said to oppose it.

Israel does not coordinate the management of the crossings and supply of the resources with Hamas because the militant group has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and calls for Israel's destruction.

Meanwhile, Syria said Wednesday that Israel's air sortie over the country earlier this month showed that it was not interested in peace.

"Had Israel been interested in peacemaking, it would not have violated Syrian airspace," said an editorial column in a government backed newspaper.

U.S. officials tell CBS News that the Israeli air raid destroyed a building Israeli intelligence believed housed nuclear equipment, and that it was launched three days after a North Korean ship docked at a Syrian port.

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