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Israel strikes Gaza amid supply fears

January 20, 2008

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GAZA CITY, Jan 19: Israel kept up its strikes against Gaza militants on Saturday, killing at least two in a new raid, as its lockdown of the impoverished Palestinian territory started to take its toll on residents.

A pre-dawn air strike north of Gaza City killed two fighters of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas which has ruled the increasingly isolated territory since seizing power seven months ago, medics said. A second strike there left no casualties.

Israel has escalated operations in Gaza, killing at least 36 militants since Tuesday in the biggest flare-up of violence since the Islamist movement took power. Hamas has launched about 200 rockets into southern Israel in the same period, lightly wounding more than 10 people.

On Thursday, Israel announced it would close all crossings into and out of Gaza for several days to all but essential humanitarian aid, intensifying its almost two-year siege of the territory aimed at stemming rocket fire.

A senior official from the UN agency for refugees, which on Friday was prevented from bringing in a shipment of humanitarian aid, warned about the impact of the closures on the deepening poverty in the coastal strip.

“At the UN we only provide 61 per cent of the daily calories for the people that are relying on us,” John Ging, the UNRWA’s Gaza director, told AFP.

More than a million people in Gaza — two-thirds of the territory’s total population — rely on the UNRWA food system, which Mr Ging warned only provides basic staples such as oil, lentils, and rice.

“We have stocks of food for two months in our warehouses but we must plan for interruptions to crossings, and the demand will continue to escalate if the crossings remain closed.”

As news of the new measures spread, residents across the Gaza Strip stocked up on diesel fuel, leaving several service stations empty. “We have already run out of diesel and we can only supply gasoline for two hours a day,” gas station owner Ibrahim al-Berberi told AFP. “The supply that comes to us is not enough, because it runs out the same day we receive it.”An European Union official involved in fuel shipments to Gaza, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said supplies were halted on Friday and that Israel would reassess the closures on Monday.

Meanwhile, the head of Gaza’s power authority warned that there was only enough fuel to run its sole power station -- already operating at less than half its capacity -- for another day.

“The fuel supply today (Saturday) is only sufficient for one day and tomorrow at 10:00 am (0800 GMT), if more fuel is not allowed in, we will see the supply to the power station cut off,” Kanaan Obeid told AFP.

The station currently provides around 45 megawatts of power, with another 120 coming from Israel and 17 from Egypt. Power cuts have grown increasingly common in recent weeks in Gaza, where many residents rely on generators.

“The power supply to people and to the vital services are being interrupted quite severely at the moment because the power plant is only working at 45 per cent of its capacity,” Mr Ging said.

Hamas called on Egypt on Saturday to open the Rafah crossing along its border with Gaza -- the only crossing that bypasses Israel -- to allow the transport of “basic goods necessary for the continuation of life in Gaza”.

Spokesman Taher al-Nunu condemned the “Israeli occupation’s hardening of its unjust siege against our people and its preventing the entry of medicine, food, and fuel in a way that threatens the lives of 1.5 million people.”

The new lockdown has prompted an international outcry, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday expressing concern about the closures and calling for an immediate end to the escalating violence in the region.

“Of particular concern today, in addition to the upsurge in violence, is the decision by Israel to close the crossing points in between Gaza and Israel used for the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” his press office said.

The new escalation comes just over a week after a visit by US President George W. Bush to Israel and the occupied West Bank to encourage revived peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state by Jan 2009.

But Arab League chief Amr Mussa on Saturday “strongly condemned” Israel’s military attacks on Gaza and warned that the ongoing violence and the deteriorating humanitarian situation could derail the new talks.—AFP