- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israel yesterday declared the Gaza Strip an “enemy entity” and said it would cut back supplies of fuel and electricity to the isolated territory, riling Palestinian leaders just hours before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived on a new peace mission.

A senior U.S. official said Miss Rice had not been informed in advance about the Israeli decision, which was taken by the Cabinet in retaliation for continuing rocket attacks from inside the Hamas-controlled strip.

“Additional restrictions will be imposed on the Hamas regime, limiting the transfer of goods to the Gaza Strip, cutting back fuel and electricity and restricting the movement of people to and from the strip,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office announced.

Miss Rice, speaking to reporters shortly after her arrival, pointedly refused to say whether the United States supports the new designation, noting only that Hamas “is a hostile entity to us as well.” Unlike her Israeli hosts, she took pains to distinguish between the citizens of Gaza and Hamas, the militant group that took control of the strip earlier this year.

“We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza and, indeed, will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs,” the secretary said at a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Mrs. Livni promised not to divide Gaza from the West Bank, and Miss Rice stressed that both will be part of a future Palestinian state.

However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Miss Rice is scheduled to meet today, condemned the isolation of Gaza, calling it an “oppressive decision.” One of his ministers, Ashraf Ajrami, said it was “collective punishment against the people of Gaza and discourages serious political discussion.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his group would “confront the new aggression and escalation with all possible means.”

Israel’s unexpected announcement was the second embarrassment of the day for Miss Rice, whose staff took pains to respond to a report in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Pope Benedict XVI rejected an appeal for a meeting with the secretary in August.

The newspaper said Miss Rice had hoped a meeting with the pope would bolster her credentials going into Middle East peace talks but was told that the pontiff was on vacation. The newspaper said the rejection reflected deep differences of opinion over Middle East policy.

In Jerusalem, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed that a meeting had been requested but said Miss Rice “did not have solid plans to travel to Rome” and did not take the rejection as a snub.

“The secretary looks forward to meeting the Holy Father at some point in the future, although I understand that Vatican policy is that he doesn’t meet with foreign ministers,” he said.

Even before yesterday’s announcement on Gaza, Miss Rice was struggling to attract interest in an international conference that President Bush has asked the secretary to host.

Arab and European diplomats said their governments have told the Bush administration that they will participate in the meeting, tentatively scheduled for November in Washington, only if the Israelis and the Palestinians can agree on specific measures to help resolve the decades-long conflict.

Instead of “agreement,” Miss Rice yesterday referred to the search for a “common understanding” between the two parties, and Mrs. Livni spoke of “common ground.”

The diplomats also said that so-called final-status issues — borders, refugee rights and Jerusalem — must be addressed. Miss Rice and Mrs. Livni resisted those demands yesterday, as they have done before.

Mr. Abbas has been asking the Americans to put more pressure on Israel to offer at least some gestures to the Palestinians. Disappointed with the progress to date, Palestinian officials said yesterday that Mr. Abbas will ask Miss Rice to delay the Washington meeting.

Mrs. Livni said Israel will do its best to avoid a humanitarian crisis as it cuts the flow of supplies to Gaza, but neither she nor Miss Rice proposed any specific measures. The impoverished territory’s 1.5 million people are almost entirely dependent on Israeli suppliers for power and fuel.

Although Hamas has not been directly responsible for the rocket attacks on Israel, Mr. Olmert’s government holds the group accountable because it has done nothing to stop the strikes. Israel has been carrying out air strikes and limited ground incursions and has sealed Gaza’s borders, halting trade in and out of the area.

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