Gaza Complicates Rice's Mission

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Emilio Morenatti / AP

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, Israel, September 19, 2007

The decision by Israel's security cabinet Wednesday to declare Gaza a "hostile entity" could not have come at a worse time for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She had arrived in Israel the same day hoping to drum up support for an Israeli-Arab summit this November, which nobody outside the White House seems to want. But Israel's latest move, in retaliation for rocket fire into southern Israel from Palestinian militants in Gaza, is unlikely to help promote her mission.

Declaring Gaza a "hostile entity" was a first legal step toward Israel's cutting off funds, power and fuel to Gaza's 1.6 million Palestinians, many of them long-term refugees, who are already squeezed by an 18-month long economic blockade imposed after Palestinians voted in a Hamas government.

Israel's Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said that the new sanctions would not "cross the red line in terms of inflicting humanitarian damage." This precaution was seconded by Rice, who said, "We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza." She added: "We will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs." But aid officials are skeptical that the moves being weighed by Israel such as turning off the power supply will hurt only militants and not the Palestinian civilians, many of them refugees, crowded into the narrow Gaza Strip. One international aid representative in Jerusalem denounced the plan as "nothing less than collective punishment," while U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to reconsider, warning that "such a step would be contrary to Israel's obligations towards the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law."

The move reflects the dilemma confronting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: Some of his generals have been clamoring for a large-scale offensive against Gaza in retaliation for a rocket strike earlier this month by Palestinian militants that landed in a military base, wounding 60 Israeli soldiers. But a big assault on Gaza, said the plan's critics, could have cost Israeli lives and got troops mired there for a long time. Instead, Olmert and his defense minister settled for tougher sanctions on the coastal strip — even at the cost of raising an international outcry.

Meanwhile, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza said that Israel's declaration was tantamount to "a declaration of war". But on Wednesday, militants fired only a single rocket, which failed to clear the 20-foot concrete wall that Israel built to corral the Gazans.

Seeking to forestall a crisis in the making, Rice chose her words cautiously in a media conference Wednesday, claiming that the "hostile entity" was not Gaza but Hamas, which runs the cordoned-off territory. Rice will reiterate this distinction on Thursday when she meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Advisers to the Palestinian leader told TIME that despite his feud with Hamas following its ouster of his own militia in Gaza, Abbas cannot publicly accept Israel's turning the lights off on those of his countrymen unlucky enough to live in Gaza. Such an action would also make it even more difficult to persuade already wavering Arab states to attend President Bush's proposed November peace conference with Israel.

In spite of the surprises that Rice found on the ground in Jerusalem, a senior State Department official familiar with the negotiations was unbowed in pushing for peace talks this fall. "We've got plenty of time," said the official, "the way these things work it may not come together for a while. We wouldn’t be coming here if it wasn't for a purpose," adding, there is "some sense of pregnant opportunity."

Rice's best chance may be to lean on Israel to offer a few more concessions to Abbas on other issues, such as the release of more prisoners and the removal of roadblocks inside the West Bank. But even that may not be enough; Palestinians want Rice's summit to draw up final plans for a two-state solution — a step the Israelis are currently unwilling to take. "Unless the Israelis offer us something concrete, why should we go to any summit?" complained an Abbas adviser.

—With reporting from Jamil Hamad/Ramallah