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Israel spurns U.N. plea to ease Gaza blockade

Israel stood fast Wednesday by its decision to clamp shut cargo crossings at the Gaza Strip, brushing off pleas to ease the blockade from United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel stood fast Wednesday by its decision to clamp shut cargo crossings at the Gaza Strip, brushing off pleas to ease the blockade from United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon.

Israel sealed the passages two weeks ago after a five-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza militants started unraveling in an effort to halt rocket and mortar fire at Israeli border towns.

The crossings, a main source of imports to Gaza, have been cracked open occasionally to allow in fuel and vital supplies. But the closures have drastically reduced the amount of goods entering the already impoverished seaside territory of 1.4 million people, causing shortages of many basic goods.

On Tuesday, Ban called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "to express his deep concern over the consequences of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza," the U.N. said in a statement.

"He strongly urged the prime minister to facilitate the freer movement of urgently needed humanitarian supplies and of concerned United Nations personnel into Gaza," the statement said.

'Regime of terror'Olmert said Israel was not to blame, according to the prime minister's office. "Gazans have only Hamas' regime of terror to blame," he said.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group committed to Israel's destruction, has ruled Gaza since violently overrunning the territory in June 2007.

Israel's Gaza blockade has led to frequent blackouts throughout Gaza and resulted in shortages of food, supplies and even cash.

Gaza's largest flour mill halted operations Wednesday, saying it had run out of wheat, and the United Nations said it was being forced to suspend cash grants to 98,000 of Gaza's poorest people because of a shortage of Israeli currency.

The Israeli closure also prompted major international media organizations, including The Associated Press, BBC, Reuters and the New York Times, to send a rare protest letter to the prime minister, requesting that foreign journalists be allowed into Gaza. Israel has barred reporters from entering the area for the past two weeks.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio on Wednesday that "there has to be quiet for the crossings to open."

Tenuous truceIsrael and Hamas have been observing a truce since June. The cease-fire has largely held until Israeli troops entered Gaza early this month to destroy a tunnel they said militants had dug to attack Israel. At least 17 militants have been killed since, and militants have fired about 150 rockets and mortars at Israel, by the military's count.

Both Israeli and Hamas officials have said they hope to restore the calm, though Barak has said the military is ready for a large-scale operation if necessary.

Gaza Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, met with leaders of other Palestinian factions Wednesday. He said they support maintaining the truce "as long as the occupation (Israel) commits to it."

Before the truce was reached, militants pelted Israel with near-daily rocket attacks, provoking sometimes harsh military retaliation that killed hundreds of Palestinians, including many civilians.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama called Abbas on Tuesday to tell him he would spare no effort to facilitate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Wednesday.

Jewish settlers face eviction
In the West Bank, meanwhile, a court-ordered deadline expired for Jewish settlers to leave a four-story building in the volatile city of Hebron.

The settlers ignored the ruling, which also said they must be evicted within 30 days if they don't leave voluntarily. Barak said the government would comply with the court order, but added defense officials would first try to persuade the settlers to leave.

About 500 of the most extreme Israeli settlers live in Hebron in heavily guarded enclaves among 170,000 Palestinians. If Israeli security forces evict them from the building, violent clashes are likely. Media reports Wednesday said about 600 people have gathered around the building to prevent its evacuation.

Settlers moved in early last year after claiming they bought the building from a Palestinian. The Palestinian denies the claim, and Israeli authorities have not recognized the sale as legal.