Jerusalem - Israel declared the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip an "enemy entity" on Wednesday and said it would cut utilities to the territory. The move complicates a US plan to relaunch peace talks aimed at establishing a separate Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gestures next to Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni, not seen, during a joint press conference following a meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, September 19, 2007. [AP]
Israel made the provocative decision hours before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived for talks setting up what President Bush hopes will be a pivotal peace conference this fall. Rice neither endorsed nor criticized Israel's move.
Israel did not announce a date for cutting off services. The decision is likely to reinforce perceptions among Palestinians and their Arab backers that Israel will do as it sees fit regardless of the cost to civilians and that the US will not block Israel.
Rice said the US is trying to help both sides reach "common understanding." But she did not say if the US-sponsored peace meeting will address the hardest issues in the six-decade conflict, including the final borders of a Palestinian state.
The US has not said exactly what it wants to achieve from the summit, nor who will attend.
Rice wants to recruit Arab states to reinforce the Palestinians in any deal with Israel, but the conference will carry little weight if regional players such as Saudi Arabia choose to sit it out. The meeting also has little chance of success if Israel is seen as unwilling to make hard concessions to the Palestinians and the US is seen unable to force Israel's hand.
The US-sponsored conference is meant to invigorate peace efforts that largely lay fallow during George W. Bush's presidency and set clear guidelines for forming a Palestinian state.
The Gaza designation overshadowed any public talk of peace prospects as Rice began two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Israel did not inform the US in advance of Wednesday's action, a US diplomat said. Israel has been considering something similar for several weeks, however, to try to halt Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns from launching sites in Gaza. The decision lets Israel cut electricity, water and other services that the impoverished, crowded coastal territory depends on Israel to provide.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said cutting off fuel and power "would violate Israels duty as an occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the occupied population and it would also intensify the existing humanitarian crisis."
Israel has been carrying out airstrikes and limited ground strikes. It also has sealed Gaza's borders, halting trade, while permitting little more than humanitarian aid into the area.
Hamas militants who hold de facto control in Gaza have not been directly involved in the rocket attacks, but the movement has done little to halt the fire. Israel says it holds the group responsible.
Rice tried to tread carefully at a press conference with Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. Grim-faced, Rice said the US will not turn its back on civilians in Gaza and that Hamas "is a hostile entity to the United States as well."
The Israeli designation covers all of Gaza, not just Hamas militants who took control in June. The US and Israel regard Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with it.
Livni said Israel was not obliged to deliver anything to Gaza beyond humanitarian aid.
"When it comes to the humanitarian needs, we have our own responsibilities," Livni said. "All the needs which are more than humanitarian needs will not be supplied by Israel to Gaza Strip."
Livni said the decision is legal. International aid groups said it was unacceptable to blame civilians for the actions of militants.
Gisha, a human rights group that works for greater freedom of movement in Gaza, said the action was "immoral and illegal, constituting prohibited collective punishment of civilians."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate leader on whom Rice and Israel have pinned reinvigorated hopes for peace, quickly condemned the Israeli move.
"This oppressive decision will only strengthen the choking embargo imposed on 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, increase their suffering and deepen their tragedy," Abbas' office said in a statement.
Abbas has installed a new government in the larger and more populous West Bank, but still claims authority over Gaza. An independent Palestinian state would include both territories, which lie on either side of Israel.
Among the Israeli officials Rice saw Wednesday was the defense chief, Ehud Barak. He has hinted that Israel may have to relaunch military operations in Gaza more than two years after a unilateral pullout of Israeli forces and settlers.
Rice planned to meet with Abbas and other West Bank Palestinians on Thursday.