Israel on Wednesday declared the Gaza Strip an "enemy entity" and said it would cut back power and fuel supplies to the Hamas-ruled territory, enraging Palestinians as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a peacemaking mission to the region.
Asked about Israel's declaration, Rice did not criticize it.
"Hamas is a hostile entity to the United States as well," she said at a news conference. "We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza and indeed will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs."
Israel did not set a date for a cutback on services, which is meant to force Palestinian militants in Gaza to halt rocket fire on southern Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Israel did not intend to create a humanitarian crisis.
Impoverished Gaza is almost entirely dependent on Israeli suppliers for power and fuel. The international aid group Oxfam called the Israeli decision "immoral" and illegal "collective punishment."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the plan, calling it "an oppressive decision." Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said his group would "confront the new aggression and escalation with all possible means."
The Islamic militant group Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in June and it has been locked in a power struggle with Abbas' Fatah group, which controls the West Bank.
'Additional restrictions' vowed
Israel's declaration of Gaza as an "enemy entity" could open the way for the most severe retaliatory measure in response to incessant Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. Israel has been carrying out airstrikes and limited ground incursions. It also has sealed Gaza's borders, halting trade in and out of the area, while permitting little more than humanitarian aid into the area.
While Hamas has not been directly involved in the rocket attacks, it has done little to halt them and it has fired mortars at Israeli targets. Israel says it holds the group responsible.
"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," Olmert's office said.
The statement said the sanctions would be enacted "following a legal review" and would be designed to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
Rice was to meet Olmert later Wednesday and the Palestinians on Thursday.
Hamas, Abbas condemns move
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, speaking at a joint news conference with Rice, said Israel was not obliged to deliver anything to Gaza beyond humanitarian aid. Legal experts have reviewed the planned sanctions to make sure they conform with international law, she added.
"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."
Hamas and Abbas both condemned the Israeli move.
"This oppressive decision will only tighten the stifling embargo imposed on 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, increase their suffering and magnify their tragedy," Abbas' office said. Although Abbas no longer controls Gaza, he continues to claim authority over the area.
Hamas to meet with Islamic Jihad
A Hamas official said the group's exiled leaders in Damascus would meet with their Islamic Jihad counterparts to discuss the possibility of halting the rocket fire. Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for most rocket attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because a date for the meeting had not been set.
The crude rockets from Gaza, which Israel evacuated two years ago, have killed 12 people in southern Israel in the past seven years, injured dozens more and disrupted daily life in the region.
Rice arrived to try to wring more progress out of Israeli-Palestinian talks before a planned U.S.-sponsored peace gathering. But even before she landed, an official in Abbas' office said he would ask Rice not to set a specific date for the conference until it is clear Abbas and Olmert can agree upon a joint statement setting out their goals.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because Abbas and Rice had not yet met.
November peace conference
The conference tentatively is scheduled for Washington in November. The U.S. thinks Abbas has a freer hand to reach a final accord with Israel because he expelled Hamas from power after it seized control of Gaza. Abbas has set up a new government of moderates in the West Bank.
Hamas' control of Gaza will hamper Abbas as he and Olmert try to move toward a final accord. Their first step is hammering out a joint platform on the most contentious issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the Washington conference — final borders, the status of disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians hope the gathering will bring a solid framework for a final agreement but Israel wants to retain greater flexibility with a more general statement of goals.
On her way to the region Wednesday, Rice said she hoped conference participants would not only "sit and talk and talk and talk."
"We can't simply continue to say that we want a two-state solution — we've got to start to move toward one," she told reporters aboard her plane.