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Israel lets medicine, fuel in through Gaza

Image: Israeli soldiers prepare tanks on base along Gaza Strip border
An Israeli soldier loads machine gun bullets atop a tank on a base along the border with the Gaza Strip on Friday.Jim Hollander / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel reopened its border with Gaza on Friday to allow deliveries of humanitarian aid, despite continued rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip and growing expectations of a large-scale Israeli military campaign against Palestinian militants.

The military said approximately 90 trucks would deliver medicine, fuel, cooking gas and other vital goods into Gaza. The shipment includes a large donation of goods from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s wife as well as more than 150,000 gallons of fuel and 200 tons of natural gas, the military said.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said it agreed to open its cargo crossings into Gaza to avoid a humanitarian crisis there. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the decision came after consultations with defense officials as well as calls from the international community. Israel controls Gaza’s cargo crossings, which are used to deliver food, fuel and other goods into the territory.

Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the humanitarian shipment was meant to be a message to the people of Gaza that they were not Israel’s enemy.

“We are sending them a message that the Hamas leadership has turned them into a punching bag for everyone,” he told Israel Radio. “It is a leadership that has turned school yards in rocket launching pads. This a leadership that does not care that the blood of its people will run in the streets.”

The deliveries did not persuade Gaza militants to halt their rocket and mortar fire on Israeli border communities. The military said more than 10 rockets and mortars were fired toward Israel early Friday. One home was struck but no injuries were reported.

Israel had originally agreed to open the cargo crossings with Gaza on Wednesday, but shut the passages after militants began pounding southern Israel with dozens of rockets and mortars. The attacks were the heaviest since an Egyptian-mediated truce between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers expired last week. The truce, which had taken effect in June, began unraveling in early November.

Pressure has been mounting in Israel for the military to strike forcefully against Gaza militants and Israeli leaders have been voicing strong threats in recent days. But on Friday, military officials said the army was planning a routine rotation of its troops along the Gaza border in the coming week. That, coupled with current winter weather, made an imminent operation seem unlikely, they said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to discuss military strategy publicly.

Israel has maintained a strict blockade of Gaza since the June 19 cease-fire began unraveling six weeks ago, allowing in only small quantities of essential goods. Egypt has also sealed its border crossing with the territory, the main exit point for Gazans traveling abroad.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Cairo Thursday for meetings with Mubarak, who urged Israel to exercise restraint in response to the rocket fire. Livni brushed aside the calls, however, and said Israel would defend itself.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also issued a direct, emotional plea to the people of Gaza to stop firing and turn against their Hamas leaders, whom he called “the main reason for your suffering — for all of ours.” He delivered the message in an interview with the Arabic-language Al-Arabiya TV channel.

Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation. Islamic Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007, after routing security forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel has thus far been reluctant to press ahead with a campaign likely to exact heavy casualties on both sides. Past incursions have not halted the barrages, and officials fear anything short of a reoccupation of Gaza would fail to achieve the desired results.

Israel is expected to continue its military consultations over the weekend.

Also Friday, a poll published in the Maariv daily showed Livni’s moderate Kadima Party neck and neck with its hawkish Likud rival ahead of Feb. 10 elections. Likud objects to the peace talks that Israeli negotiators, led by Livni, are conducting with Abbas’ government.

A Teleseker survey showed Kadima winning 30 of parliament’s 120 seats, to Likud’s 29 seats. The poll surveyed more than 800 people and had a margin of error of 2 seats. Previous polls in recent weeks had given Likud a strong lead.