Israeli Fuel Blockade May Halt Food Handouts, UN Warns

Israeli Fuel Blockade May Halt Food Handouts, UN Warns

Food aid to residents in Gaza could be suspended unless Israel reopens the border, a UN agency said today. The warning came amid a resurgence of violence between Israel and Hamas Islamists, and the halting by Israel of crucial fuel supplies to the coastal strip."Because of a shortage of nylon for plastic bags and fuel for vehicles and generators, on Wednesday or Thursday we are going to have to suspend our food distribution programme to 860,000 people in Gaza if the present situation continues," said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief Works Agency, which distributes food aid to 860,000 Palestinians in Gaza. Unwra distributes basic food parcels in Gaza consisting of items such as pulses, flour and packaged milk. The situation in the territory, which has been under a western economic embargo since Hamas took power last June, is already bleak.

"We are already seeing signs of malnutrition and there have been cases or rickets [a cause of weak bones through a lack of vitamin D]," Gunness said. Israel, however, showed little signs of easing what is effectively an economic blockade of Gaza in response to a barrage of rocket fire aimed at its southern towns. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Palestinians in Gaza might have to go without Israeli-supplied petrol for their cars as long as militants continue to fire rockets across the border. "As far as I'm concerned, all the residents of Gaza can walk and have no fuel for their cars, because they have a murderous terrorist regime that doesn't allow people in the south of Israel to live in peace," Olmert said in a broadcast. The UN and the EU have urged Israel to restore the flow of fuel amid fears of a humanitarian disaster. Lebanon and Syria called for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the Israeli blockade. The Syrian foreign ministry demanded "an immediate end to the collective punishment and Israeli crimes", saying Israel was violating "the simplest rules of human rights".

The pro-western Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, described developments in Gaza as a serious escalation of Israel's "racial discrimination and blatant human rights violations against Palestinians, under the pretext of confronting Hamas". Palestinian officials warned of a catastrophe in health services in Gaza because of Israel's decision to halt fuel shipments, which has forced the shutdown of Gaza's sole only power plant. "We have the choice to either cut electricity on babies in the maternity ward or heart surgery patients or stop operating rooms," said a health ministry official, Moaiya Hassanain. Israel last night refused to reopen crossings or allow fuel supplies in after the most intense fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza for more than a year. Nearly 40 Palestinians have been killed in the past week, at least 10 of them civilians. Electricity officials shut Gaza's only power plant just before 8pm (6pm GMT) yesterday. Gaza bakeries stopped operating because of the blockade, bakers said, because they had neither power nor flour. Fresh pitta bread is a staple food for Gazans. Israel denied its economic measures would cause widespread suffering. "We will do everything to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and I can guarantee to you that there will not be a humanitarian crisis in Gaza," said Shlomo Dror, an Israeli defence spokesman. Arye Mekel, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, accused Hamas of creating an artificial emergency, calling the blackout a "ploy ... to attract international sympathy".

Hamas said five hospital patients had died because of the power cut. But health officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied this. Israel imposed the fuel blockade in response to rocket fire that has virtually paralysed life in southern Israeli towns. The upsurge of fighting last week followed an Israeli anti-rocket operation in Gaza. The Israeli deputy prime minister, Haim Ramon, said there were signs the blockade was working, as the number of rockets fired dropped sharply today. The army said five were fired yesterday, down from 53 over the previous two days. As well as fuel from Israel to power its electricity plant, Gaza receives about 70% of its electricity direct from Israel. That energy supply had not been stopped, Israel said. The Gaza power plant supplies most of the remaining electricity. Israeli officials acknowledge its fuel supply has been stopped. The EU criticised Israel for punishing all of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants and urged it to restart fuel supplies and open border crossings. "I have made clear that I am against this collective punishment of the people of Gaza," the EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said in a statement. "I urge the Israeli authorities to restart fuel supplies and open the crossings for the passage of humanitarian and commercial supplies." Ferrero-Waldner said the decision to close border crossings and stop fuel provision "will exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and risks escalating an already difficult situation on the ground". Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation but still controls the borders and shipment of supplies. Hamas seized power in Gaza from the rival Fatah faction, which is based in the West Bank and led by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

(c) 2008 The Guardian

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