JERUSALEM // For the second time this week, Israel yesterday resisted a plea by the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip and urged the world to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks instead. Gazans have endured shortages of electricity and some food staples since a 5-month-old cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the coastal enclave, began to unravel on Nov 4.
Since then, the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak has kept his country's border crossings with Gaza closed, with a few exceptions, arguing that the soldiers required to supervise them would be easy targets for rocket fire. Mr Ki-moon telephoned the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert this week to call for passage into Gaza of trucks from two UN agencies that feed about two-thirds of the territory's 1.5 million people. Getting no satisfaction, he phoned again yesterday to make the same appeal to the foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
Ms Livni told him the blockade would continue until militants hold their fire. "Whoever thinks that a situation of them firing at us, while everything continues as usual, can exist is mistaken," her office said in a statement. "The international community must be more decisive in making itself heard, and in using its influence, in the face of these attacks." The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire is due to expire next month, causing jitters across the region. Despite the violations this month -- the firing of more than 170 rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel by Palestinian militants and small-scale Israeli army incursions that have killed 15 militants in Gaza -- neither side has renounced the truce.
In an unusual meeting in Jordan this week, King Abdullah II warned Mr Olmert and Mr Barak that a large-scale military operation in Gaza would destabilize the Middle East. Hamas and an allied militant group, Islamic Jihad, announced yesterday that they were ready to halt the attacks if Israel opens the border crossings and stops the incursions. The attacks from Gaza tapered off yesterday; the Israeli army counted just one incoming rocket, which caused no harm.
UN officials say the security threat posed by the rockets, which have caused few injuries and no deaths in Israel, does not justify such tight border restrictions. Because it controls most access points to Gaza, the officials say, Israel is obligated under international law to try to maintain essential services for the territory's civilians in the face of conflict. 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.
A shortfall in deliveries of industrial diesel purchased from Israel has kept Gaza's only power plant shut for most of the last week. Blackouts last up to 20 hours a day in Gaza City, where electricity from other sources is being rationed. On Wednesday, the territory's largest flour mill halted operations when it ran out of grain. The bakers association said 27 of Gaza's 47 bakeries were closed yesterday. Many Gazans, however, continued to bake bread at home from dwindling stocks of their own UN-supplied flour.
Hamas authorities suspended welfare payments to 98,000 Gazans after Israel this week turned back shipments of cash from the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. Israeli officials say the shortages are being exaggerated to stir international sympathy for Gaza. Yet for two weeks the same officials, citing border security concerns, have barred reporters from entering Gaza to report on the situation.
Executives of 15 international media organizations have signed a letter to Mr Olmert protesting the restriction on journalists. * AP