Israel keeps Gaza shut despite aid worries

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JERUSALEM // Israel said yesterday it would maintain its closure of the Gaza Strip despite international concern over a deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the aid-dependent Palestinian territory. "This decision was taken because of the continuation of Palestinian rocket attacks against southern Israel," said Peter Lerner, a defence ministry spokesman. A flare-up of violence on Nov 4 prompted Israel to tighten a blockade it had imposed since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in Gaza in June 2007.

Since the recent surge in violence, only 33 lorryloads of basic supplies as well as limited quantities of fuel have been allowed into the impoverished coastal strip. The UN has urged Israel to reopen the crossings, saying the closure of Gaza contravenes international law. Israel had been expected to significantly ease its blockade after a truce went into effect in June. It says that militant attacks have made this impossible but Hamas accuses it of breaching the deal.

Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, demanded in a telephone conversation with Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, that "the international community stop applying a policy of ignoring acts of terror aimed at hurting innocent people". She told him on Thursday that the blockade would continue until the militants held their fire. Early yesterday, a rocket fired from Gaza exploded near the Israeli port city of Ashkelon without causing any casualties or damage, army radio said.

Reserve Major Gen Amos Gilad, a senior defence ministry official, who led the Israeli side in the Egyptian-brokered negotiations for the truce, insisted that it remained in force and that he expected it to continue. Asked in a Jerusalem Post interview if the truce had collapsed, he said: "No. [Hamas's overall] interest, as far as can be judged, is to return to the calm. "But Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state [Israel] ? It wants to take over the Palestine Liberation Organisation. At present for tactical and strategic reasons, it is interested in the calm."

Major Gen Gilad said there was no military solution to the Gaza problem and rejected calls by cabinet members such as Haim Ramon, the deputy prime minister, and Eli Yishai, the trade and industry minister, for a major ground attack to topple Hamas. "Experience shows that military operations don't always solve problems in the Middle East. You have to find the optimal solution. To date no appropriate military solution was found for the [Gaza] Strip."

Israeli restrictions have left the UN Relief and Works Agency, the larger of the two UN suppliers of humanitarian aid, with only enough food handouts to last through this weekend. On Wednesday, the territory's largest flour mill halted operations when it ran out of grain. * Associated Press, with additional reporting by The Washington Post