Israel declares Gaza "enemy entity" as Rice visits

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JERUSALEM, Sep 19 (Reuters) Israel declared the Gaza Strip an ''enemy entity'' today and said it would reduce its fuel and power supplies to the Hamas-run territory in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Hamas described the move, complicating a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to prepare for a US-led West Asia peace conference, as a declaration of war.

''They aim to starve our people and force them to bow and accept humiliating formulas that could emerge from the so-called November peace conference,'' Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said his security cabinet approved the ''enemy entity'' classification and there would be ''limitations on imports to the Gaza Strip and a reduction in the supply of fuel and electricity''.

It gave no starting date for the sanctions, saying they would be implemented after Israeli authorities had examined the legal and humanitarian ramifications.

''We are going to ask the Americans to pressure Israel to refrain from taking such action,'' Palestinian Information Minister Riyad al-Malki said in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Rice will meet President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow.

Asked about the Israeli move, Rice told a news conference in Jerusalem that Washington considered Hamas to be a ''hostile entity'' but pledged the United States ''would not abandon the innocent Palestinians'', a reference to humanitarian aid.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who held talks with Rice, said ''all the needs that are more than the humanitarian needs will not be supplied by Israel to the Gaza Strip''.

Hamas Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas's Fatah faction in fighting in June. Hamas, which won parliamentary elections last year, has spurned Western calls to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

PRESSURE Faced with frequent cross-border rocket salvoes which the Israeli military has been unable to stop, Olmert has been under pressure from right-wing members of his government to order a broad ground operation in the Gaza Strip to confront militants.

The security cabinet opted instead several weeks ago to weigh cutting power to the area, sanctions Israeli officials acknowledged could be seen as a violation of international law.

By formally defining the Gaza Strip as an enemy entity, Israel could argue that it cannot be bound by international law governing the administration of occupied territory to supply utilities to the population of 1.5 million.

A senior UN official, however, cautioned Israel against cutting essential services to Gaza.

''Any action to cut off electricity and other essentials is against international humanitarian law, and Israel should consider this very carefully before any actions that it takes,'' the official said.

Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Palestinians say it is still under occupation because Israel controls its borders, air space and coastal waters.

According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Gaza's population uses approximately 200 megawatts of electricity, out of which 120 are provided directly from Israeli power lines, 17 are delivered from Egypt and 65 are produced at a plant in Gaza.

The territory and its power station are also dependent on Israeli fuel supplies, some funded by the European Union.

Beginning a visit to the region, Rice said ''critical issues'' would be tackled at the West Asia conference, a meeting that Palestinians hope will move them closer to statehood. She said she hoped her trip would build momentum ahead of the gathering and bridge differences on core matters -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security.

''The idea that somehow the president of the United States would call an international meeting so that we could all have a photo-op is very far-fetched,'' said Rice, who will be in the West Asiafor little more than 24 hours.

REUTERS SG ND2010

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