(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The security cabinet's decision Wednesday to designate Gaza "hostile territory," a declaration preparing the way for a possible cutoff of gas and electricity supplies, has as much to do with Israeli frustration that Hamas is showing it can govern the Strip as it does with the constant Kassam barrages, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the security cabinet the decision, which unanimously passed, was intended to weaken Hamas and strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Barak also said that no one could expect that the rocket attacks would be completely ended.
The logic behind the decision, the Post has learned, was to hold Hamas "both responsible and accountable" for June's violent takeover of Gaza. Israel, by threatening to cut fuel and gas supplies, wants to prevent Hamas from being able to show the Palestinians that they are governing effectively, as has increasingly been the case.
Following the cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister's Office issued a communiquÃ© saying: "Hamas is a terrorist organization that has taken control of the Gaza Strip and turned it into hostile territory. This organization engages in hostile activity against the State of Israel and its citizens and bears responsibility for this activity.
"In light of the foregoing, it has been decided to adopt the recommendations that have been presented by the security establishment, including the continuation of military and counterterrorist operations against the terrorist organizations. Additional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and to reduce the supply of fuel and electricity.
"Restrictions will also be placed on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip. The sanctions will be enacted following a legal examination, while taking into account both the humanitarian aspects relevant to the Gaza Strip and the intention to avoid a humanitarian crisis."
Cabinet sources said Israel would ensure that a humanitarian crisis not result as a result of the decision.
While visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to give a nod of approval to the decision, it was slammed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
Rice, asked to comment on the decision at a Jerusalem press conference with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, said: "Hamas is indeed a hostile entity, and a hostile entity to the US as well."
Ban, by contrast, called on Israel to reconsider the decision, saying that cutting off vital services would violate international law and punish the already suffering civilian population in Gaza.
In one of his toughest statements aimed at Israel since taking the reins of the UN on January 1, Ban said he was "very concerned" about the government's decision.
"Such a step would be contrary to Israel's obligations towards the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law," he said. "I call for Israel to reconsider this decision."
Livni denied during the press conference with Rice that the moved violated international law, saying the decision was taken in consultation with legal authorities.
"Our decision today, declaring that the Gaza Strip is hostile territory, means that even though when it comes to humanitarian needs we have responsibility, on the other hand all the needs beyond the humanitarian ones won't be supplied to the Gaza Strip. We hope that the situation in the Gaza Strip will change in the future, and also hope that the Palestinians understand that support for these terrorists is not going to help them."
Government sources said that despite the cabinet's declaration, no decision had been made to cut back on any services at present, and that this would depend on events on the ground.
The officials said that while fuel supplies and electricity would possibly be impacted, Israel would not cut water supplies. One official said there was no reason that while terrorism was emanating from Gaza, people there could drive cars on Israeli-supplied fuel as if nothing were happening.
That there was no decision to cut off the services immediately was one reason Prime Minister Ehud Olmert backed the cabinet resolution, one source in the Prime Minister's Office said, noting that Olmert had consistently opposed cutting off utilities, fearing that it would not stop the rocket fire, and would cause Israel a great deal of diplomatic damage.
Olmert had not changed his mind, the official said, but he went along Wednesday because he saw that this was the will of the cabinet as well as much of the public.
Olmert and Barak chastised the ministers for creating the impression that there was a magical solution to the Kassam problem, saying that Israel was dealing with the issue, but that expectations had to realistic.
Barak said there was no "magic solution," and that Israel had to be careful not to be "dragged into anything." At the same time, he said "everyday brings us closer to a [military] action in Gaza." He said that four people were killed and 700 Kassam rockets were fired since the beginning of the year. In the last six years, he said, 14 people were killed and 4,000 Kassam rockets struck Israel.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, were unanimous in strongly condemning the cabinet decision, with both Fatah and Hamas describing it as "collective punishment."
Describing the move as "oppressive," Abbas warned it would increase the suffering of Palestinians.
"This oppressive decision will only strengthen the shocking embargo imposed on 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, increase their suffering and deepen their tragedy," he said in a statement.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat also attacked the decision, dubbing it "illegal and dangerous." He said it was aimed at paving the way for a massive Israeli military offensive against the Gaza Strip. "This is one of the most dangerous decisions taken by Israel," he said.
Fatah spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman accused Israel of exploiting the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip to thwart efforts to revive the peace process.
The Hamas government in the Strip condemned the decision as a "war crime" against the Palestinians and appealed to the Arab world and the West to pressure Israel to refrain from "collective punishment."
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said his movement considered the decision a "declaration of war." He said the move was part of an Israeli effort - backed by the Fayad government in Ramallah - to starve the Palestinians in Gaza in the hope that they would revolt against Hamas.
Khaled Abu Toameh and AP contributed to this report.â€¢