UN warns of humanitarian disaster in Gaza

Israel kept up its blockade of Gaza today despite warnings of a looming humanitarian disaster.

Israel kept up its blockade of Gaza today despite warnings of a looming humanitarian disaster.

With no fuel supplies coming in, bakeries and petrol stations shut and hospitals warned of possibly deadly power cuts having to be imposed. The UN said that vital food aid may have to be suspended within days.

Israel insisted however that it would keep up the pressure on Gaza, keeping border crossings closed, in its campaign to stamp out rocket attacks from the territory aimed at Jewish settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Gaza's residents can "walk, without gas for their cars," suggesting that the restrictions would not be lifted soon.

As the world looked on, Israel and Gaza's Hamas government became locked in a public relations battle over the scale of the hardship.

An angry Hamas TV announcer shouted that "we are being killed, we are starving!" and Palestinian leaders issued emotional pleas for national unity, while Israel accused Hamas of fabricating a crisis to gain world sympathy.

Gaza's power plant shut down late yesterday, plunging Gaza City into darkness.

Hospitals said they were running out of fuel for their emergency generators.

"We have the choice to either cut electricity on babies in the maternity ward or heart surgery patients or stop operating rooms," said Health Ministry official Moaiya Hassanain.

International food aid may be suspended by the week's end if the closures continue, a UN spokesman said, because of a shortage of fuel and plastic bags used to pack food. Most Gaza residents rely on food aid.

"We are going to have to suspend operations on Thursday or Friday," said Chris Gunness, from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which distributes food aid to 860,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

The World Food Program, which gives food to another 270,000 Gaza residents, said it would also have to suspend distribution by Thursday, because they expected their fuel used to power distribution trucks to run out.

Mr Olmert said he will not allow a humanitarian crisis to unfold, but also warned that Gaza's 1.5 million residents won't be able to live a "pleasant and comfortable life" as long as southern Israel comes under rocket attack from there.

"As far as I'm concerned Gaza residents will walk, without gas for their cars, because they have a murderous, terrorist regime that doesn't let people in southern Israel live in peace," Mr Olmert said.

In addition to the fuel it receives from Israel to power its electrical plant, Gaza gets about 70 per cent of its electricity directly from Israel and that has not been stopped, Israeli officials said.

Israeli Defence Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror, echoing Mr Olmert, also suggested that the crossings would not be opened in the coming days, saying that a reduction of rocket attacks this week was not enough to lift the blockade. The army said five rockets were fired yesterday, down from 53 in the two previous days.

"If we open the crossings again tomorrow, there will be rockets that fall again on Israel," Mr Dror said. "They don't want to recognise Israel and want to destroy Israel - that's their problem. They shouldn't expect that we will help them destroy us."

He and other Israeli officials claimed that Hamas was creating a false crisis and could resume supplying electricity to its people if it chose.

Daily rocket fire into its southern communities have virtually paralysed life since a peak in fighting last week that followed a small Israeli ground operation in Gaza.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has appealed to Israel to lift the blockade, although he rules only the West Bank after Hamas expelled his forces from Gaza last June.

Mr Abbas renewed peace talks with Israel after a US peace conference in November. Some Palestinians now want him to break them off.

Hamas leaders in Gaza said their West Bank rivals were partly to blame for the crisis, by not condemning Israel's actions in the strip. They called on Arab countries to help, pointedly ignoring their rivals in the West Bank.

Hundreds of Gaza residents, doctors in white coats, Hamas politicians and drivers with their ambulances demonstrated near the border with Egypt, demanding it be opened.

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