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Israel Agrees to Ease Blockade on Gaza Strip

Israel closed its border crossings with Gaza on Friday in what it said was an effort to make Palestinian militants stop launching rocket attacks, Reuters reported. Large parts of Gaza, which is home to some 1.5 million people, have since lost electricity after a power plant shut down, leading local residents to stockpile food.

The cutoff of fuel prompted strong criticism from international aid and human rights groups. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday and urged him to ease restrictions, according to an Associated Press report.

But even after agreeing to the one-time relief shipments, Barak, speaking at the annual Herzliya Conference on security, said he was prepared to strike Gaza in order to restore calm in Israeli towns battered by rocket fire from Gaza.

“I care more about our quiet than their quiet,” he said, according to the AP.

More than 45 rockets were fired into Israel on Friday and Saturday, while only five were fired on Sunday, the army said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert echoed Barak’s tough tone, telling Kadima Party legislators that while he will not let a humanitarian crisis unfold, Gaza’s residents won’t be able to live a “pleasant and comfortable life” as long as southern Israel is under rocket attack.

“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 before Barak’s decision was announced, the AP reported.

Barak’s decision followed warnings by international agencies that Gaza hospitals would run out of drugs and generator fuel in a few days unless Israel allowed shipments of supplies.

The main Gaza power plant shut down on Sunday. Though it normally provides only 30 percent of the territory’s electricity, its closure affected a far greater proportion of the population because of the way the power grid system works, the AP explained.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said enough fuel would be shipped to power the Gaza electric plant for a week, as well as fuel for hospital generators and cooking gas. Humanitarian aid, including medicine, will also be allowed in.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, however, dismissed the gesture.

“This does not mean the end of the siege on Gaza,” he said, according to news agencies, pledging to continue to fight “until we break the siege.”

Offering a possible solution, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suggested that he take control of the troubled Gaza crossings from the Palestinian side. One of the reasons Israel sealed the crossings was its refusal to deal with Hamas officials in Gaza.

Hamas official Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas would study the proposal from Abbas — offering the Palestinian leader his first possible foothold in Gaza since Hamas took over control of the territory in June.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency told Reuters it welcomed any signs that Israel was easing its cordon.

“But this drip, drip, drip, here-today-gone-tomorrow . . . approach to humanitarian assistance makes it very difficult for UNRWA to sustain, in the long term, a humanitarian program to nearly a million people,” spokesman Christopher Gunness said.

The international aid agency Oxfam warned in a statement issued Monday that Gaza’s water and sewage systems were “a matter of hours from almost total shut down as stocks of fuel to run vital pumps runs out,” the New York Times reported.

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