Top Israeli Cabinet ministers declared the Gaza Strip an "enemy entity" on Wednesday, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started a new visit to the region. The decision paved the way to cutting off vital supplies of electricity, water and fuel to the Palestinian territory.
Rice arrived on Wednesday to mediate progress on key issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians before a U.S.-sponsored peace gathering. But according to press reports, Palestinian officials said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are to ask Rice not to set a firm date for the peace conference until it is clear he and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can agree upon a joint statement setting out their goals.
"President Abbas will ask Rice tomorrow not to set a specific date for the conference until they see the possibilities of having an agreement with Israel," an official in Abbas' office said, according to the AP. The conference tentatively is scheduled for Washington in November.
On her way to the region Wednesday, Rice said she hoped the participants in the conference would not only "sit and talk and talk and talk." "It's extremely important from our point of view that it be serious and substantive," Rice told reporters aboard her plane. "We can't simply continue to say that we want a two-state solution — we've got to start to move toward one."
Rice was slated to meet Olmert and his top ministers Wednesday, and with the Palestinians on Thursday. Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the prime minister's talks with Rice would focus on progress made in his recent meetings with Abbas and on details about the international conference, such as who will participate.
Following the Israeli Security Cabinet's declaration of Gaza Strip as an "enemy entity", members of the top political and defense body said Wednesday's vote authorized the government to cut off supplies to Gaza Strip. However, they said there was no decision on when or whether the cutoff would actually take place.
Israel hopes the measures will put pressure on Hamas to stop the near-daily rocket fire. "The objective is to weaken Hamas," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Wednesday's meeting, according to one participant.
"Every day that passes brings us closer to an operation in Gaza," Barak was quoted as saying. He said an "array of options" would be considered, however, before a major invasion.
On its part, Hamas said on Wednesday that Israel had effectively declared war. "It is a declaration of war and continues the criminal, terrorist Zionist actions against our people," said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, according to Reuters.