ANALYSIS: Gaza as a 'Hostile Territory' - a Decision in the Dark

Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Barak have adopted ambiguity as their tactical weapon of choice.

The security cabinet's decision to declare Hamas-ruled Gaza a "hostile territory," paving the way for curbs on Israel's supply of electric power and fuel to the million and a half Palestinians of the strip, is the latest evidence that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have adopted ambiguity as their tactical weapon of choice.

Both Olmert, whose effusive declarations at the outset of the Lebanon war would cost him what was left of his credibility, and Barak, for whom overspeak as prime minister also exacted a high political price, have been deafening in their silence on signal defense issues of recent weeks - the reported airstrike on a possible Syrian nuclear installation, and an apparent deadly accident, also in Syria, reportedly involving dozens of Iranian advisors at a chemical weapons facility.

The Wednesday ministerial decision is a model of vigorous ambiguity. Treading gingerly, not least because of the symbolism of the convergence of the Yom Kippur holiday and the sacred Muslim month of Ramadan, the security cabinet was careful to avoid specifying the timing or the extent of the action Israel would take in restricting utility supplies to Gaza.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said the decision "allows Israel to order a number of administrative sanctions against the Gaza Strip, of course on condition they don't cross the red line in terms of inflicting humanitarian damage."

The government has been under mounting pressure to take decisive action against rocket attacks, in particular following a Qassam strike on a Negev IDF base, in which 69 soldiers were wounded.

The ministers may also have been emboldened in taking the step in the wake of an incident last month in which the EU briefly cut off aid for fuel to Gaza, causing an electrical blackout for much of the population. International condemnation was minimal, a reflection, to a degree, of the widespread diplomatic freeze against the Hamas government which took total power in Gaza in a bloody showdown with Fatah.

Armed Islamist groups, for their part, may be expected to put Israel to the test, continuing rocket attacks against Sderot throughout the holiday period, as they have in past years.

Attempts at new attacks are especially likely as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the region to prepare the ground for a November Mideast peace summit that the Islamic Jihad and other groups would like nothing better than to foil.

In the past, Israel has had little success in pressuring the Gaza population to demand that their leaders halt attacks. But the Wednesday decision is a step the government is taking, in part, in order to put off a measure it wants to avoid - a large-scale incursion into the Gaza Strip.