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Israel Gives Gaza 'Enemy' Status

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Angered by Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, Israel today turned up the pressure on the militant Islamist group Hamas. It declared the Hamas-controlled territory an enemy entity. The move paves the way for Israel to isolate Gaza further, cutting off fuel and other vital supplies. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived back in Jerusalem today to build support for a peace conference in November.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, Israel's decision could complicate her efforts.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are almost entirely dependent on Israeli suppliers for fuel and electricity. Today's Israeli decision to declare the Hamas-controlled Gaza an enemy entity is likely to lead a reduction of supplies to an area the World Bank warned earlier this week was sinking deeper into economic disarray.

A senior Israeli official told NPR that supplies would be cut, quote, "to hold Hamas accountable for exporting terror."

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, addressed the issue at a joint press conference with Secretary of State Rice.

Ms. TZIPI LIVNI (Foreign Affairs Minister, Israel): We need to give an answer to daily attacks on Israel coming from Gaza Strip.

WESTERVELT: Secretary Rice pledged that the U.S. will not abandon Palestinians in Gaza. But Rice also said, Hamas, quote, "is a hostile entity to us, as well." Israel's army has been unable to halt the rocket fire from Gaza. And today's move could open the door for a broader Israeli military operation inside the territory.

Since Hamas forcibly took control of all of Gaza from rival Fatah in June, Israel's army has carried out only small in-and-out attacks inside the strip. In Gaza, Hamas official Faouzi Barhoum called the Israeli threat to curtail fuel and other basic supplies a declaration of war.

And another official, Ahmed Yousef, threatened to ratchet up the violence if Israel carries out its threat.

Mr. AHMED YOUSEF (Hamas Official): That will cause a lot of suffering to our people. We have our own way how to respond to these Israeli and making them also bleeding and suffering the ways in we are suffering.

WESTERVELT: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, now a bitter foe of Hamas, nonetheless denounced the Israeli move as oppressive. And Israel's move could complicate Secretary Rice's efforts to build support for a fall peace meeting in the U.S. The U.S.-backed caretaker government in the West Bank, led by Abbas, wants the meeting to result in a clear framework and timetable for establishing a Palestinian state.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently told members of his ruling Kadima party that Israel favors a far more general statement of principles. Some in Abbas's inner circle are now urging the president to skip the meeting if it won't deliver specifics. Saudi Arabia, a key regional U.S. ally, has voiced similar concerns.

Mustafa Barghouti an independent member of the Palestinian parliament, says Israel's move today could derail a meeting that Palestinians already viewed with skepticism.

Dr. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI (Independent Member of Palestinian Parliament): What we see from the Israeli side is unfortunately an effort to abort the conference before it takes place. The Israelis have just declared that they're considering the whole area of Gaza the hostile area. They're attacking various parts of the West Bank. And Mr. Olmert has just declared that he has not in - he has no intention of reaching an agreement. All he wants is just a declaration of intentions.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, the Israeli prime minister's office said in a statement that any sanctions against Gaza would be enacted after evaluating the legal and humanitarian ramifications. A senior United Nations official warned that cutting essential services to Gaza's civilian population, like the militants' indiscriminate rocket attacks, would be a violation of international law.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.