Israel rejects plea on Gaza blockade
UN chief worried about conditions in closed Strip
JERUSALEM - Israel stood fast yesterday by its decision to clamp shut cargo crossings at the Gaza Strip, brushing off pleas to ease the blockade from United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon.
Israel sealed the passages two weeks ago after a 5-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza militants started to unravel, in an effort to halt rocket and mortar fire at Israeli border towns.
The crossings, a main source of imports to Gaza, have been cracked open occasionally to allow in fuel and vital supplies. But the closures have drastically reduced the amount of goods entering the already impoverished seaside territory of 1.4 million people, causing shortages of many basic goods.
Ban called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel Tuesday "to express his deep concern over the consequences of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza," the UN said in a statement.
"He strongly urged the prime minister to facilitate the freer movement of urgently needed humanitarian supplies and of concerned United Nations personnel into Gaza," the statement said.
Olmert said Israel was not to blame for the deterioration of conditions in Gaza, according to the prime minister's office. "Gazans have only Hamas's regime of terror to blame," he said.
Hamas, an Islamic militant group committed to Israel's destruction, has ruled Gaza since violently overrunning the territory in June 2007.
Israel's Gaza blockade has led to frequent blackouts throughout Gaza and resulted in shortages of food, supplies, and cash.
Gaza's largest flour mill halted operations yesterday, saying it had run out of wheat, and the United Nations said it was being forced to suspend cash grants to 98,000 of Gaza's poorest people because of a shortage of currency.
The Israeli closure also prompted international media organizations, including The Associated Press, BBC, Reuters, and The New York Times to send a rare protest letter to the prime minister, requesting that foreign journalists be allowed into Gaza. Israel has barred reporters from entering the area for the past two weeks. There was no immediate comment from Olmert's office.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio yesterday that "there has to be quiet for the crossings to open."
At nightfall yesterday, Palestinians reported a large explosion east of Gaza City. Hamas officials said the blast was caused by a shell, but it was not clear whether it was an Israeli or Palestinian device. No one was hurt. Homemade rockets and mortars fired by Palestinians at Israel often fall short and explode in Gaza.
At least 17 militants have been killed this month, and about 150 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel, by the military's count.
Both Israeli and Hamas officials have said they hope to restore the calm, though Barak has said the military is ready for a large-scale operation if necessary.