Olmert: We Won't Allow Gaza to Slide Into a Humanitarian Crisis

PM says Israel will keep providing electricity, water and medicine; Israeli company halts fuel, gas supplies.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided Sunday that Israel will not allow the Gaza Strip to slide into a humanitarian crisis in the wake of the Hamas takeover in the coastal territory.

Olmert also decided that Israel will find a way to help provide food and medicine to Gaza residents via the international aid agencies.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Sunday, however, that Israel should halt aid to the Gaza Strip until the situation there became clearer.

"We must stop all aid and assistance to the Strip," Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio. "I am stopping everything until I understand what is going on there.

"We simply have to step up the separation between Gaza and Judea and Samaria, close them off completely. The only entrance we should leave is via Rafah [on the Gaza-Egypt border]."

On Wednesday, Ben-Eliezer will chair a meeting to discuss continuing the supply of water, fuel and electricity to Gaza.

Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh said Gaza will not be cut off completely. "There will be a crisis in Gaza because it's being controlled by gangs who show no responsibility to the public," he told Israel Radio. "Israel is not (Hamas leader) Ismail Haniyeh's welfare office."

Israeli fuel company Dor Alon earlier Sunday suspended fuel and gas supplies to the Gaza Strip.

The company said, however, that it would continue to supply the fuel needed to run Gaza's power plant.

Fuel and natural gas reach Gaza in trucks from Israel, via the Karni Crossing. But according to Dor Alon representatives, on Sunday they could not locate the Palestinian officials who normally oversee the transfers in order to process the latest convoy of trucks from Israel.

Olmert's entourage issued a statement from the United States on Sunday saying the decision to cut off fuel was Dor Alon's, and did not originate from the government.

If the supply of fuel is not renewed, company spokesmen predict severe shortages in the Gaza Strip, both of fuel and cooking gas.

A representative of Palestinian petrol companies said the territory could run out of fuel for cars and cooking within two days.

Asef Hamdi, a worker at a Gaza gas station, worried that what the end of the fuel shipments will mean for the territory.

"The results will be Gaza in full darkness, with no cars," he said. "In simple words ... welcome to the Taliban lifestyle."

Palestinian officials asked Dor Alon not to cut off any more fuel until further notice, the Infrastructure Ministry said.

Senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said he had asked Israel to allow fuel and raw materials to continue reaching the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza, many of them aid-dependent refugees.

"I have spoken to the Israelis about President Abbas's request to maintain the flow of food, medical supplies, fuel, electricity and water to Gaza," Erekat told Reuters.

About 30 percent of Gazans, however, were cut off from the electric grid when infrastructure was damaged by the recent surge in fighting, and they currently depend on generators, with their rapidly dwindling fuel supply. Repairs to power lines are being hampered by lack of spare parts, which are normally shipped through Israel.

Palestinian Health Ministry officials said they hoped that hospitals currently running on generators would be reconnected to the grid before their fuel reserves run out, but they said that in any event a gasoline drought would immobilize ambulances and prevent deliveries of blood, medicines and food to medical facilities.

Senior Abbas advisor Saeb Erekat said he had appealed to Israel and the international community not to cut off supplies to Gaza. "Residents must not be punished for the bloody coup staged by Hamas," he said.

Israeli military spokesman Shlomo Dror said Israeli authorities played no part in Dor Alon's decision and had no objection to humanitarian supplies crossing into Gaza, but the problem was that with the breakdown of civil authority there, Israel had no recognized party with whom to work.

"Hamas is running things, it's Hamas' responsibility," he said. "We are not interfering."

Dor Alon has been the sole provider of fuel to the Palestinian Authority since 1994.

Since the start of 2007, the company has provided fuel to the Gaza Strip alone, while the Gaz company supplies the West Bank.

In 2006, Dor Alon's contracts for supplying fuel to Gaza totaled NIS 750 million.