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Israel Blockades Gaza Amid Terror Alert

Closing, which will keep 15,000 Palestinians from their jobs, partially reverses earlier decision.

May 13, 2003|Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

JERUSALEM — Israeli authorities, citing increased security alerts, imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip on Monday that put the area off-limits to most foreigners and partially reversed a short-lived peace gesture aimed at easing onerous travel restrictions on Palestinian workers.

The closure, enforced beginning at 1 a.m., came on the heels of a weekend visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell aimed at jump-starting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The timing of the crackdown prompted criticism that Israel was corroding any feeling of trust at a critical time in Middle East diplomacy.

The brunt of the restrictions fell on about 15,000 Palestinians living in Gaza who hold Israeli work permits but had been barred from entering Israel for a month under an earlier closure. During Powell's visit, Israel announced that it would allow them to leave the Palestinian territory for day jobs -- a measure seen as a small confidence-building step -- but when Powell departed, Israel told the Gaza workers to stay home.

Israeli security sources said the closure was a response to heightened intelligence alerts regarding planned terror attacks.

"There is an increase in the number of terrorist attempts, and consequently in the very intense activity of our security forces," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told a meeting of lawmakers from the right-wing Likud Party.

"We will operate everywhere, using all means ... without suspension."

Roughly 1.2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, a narrow and crowded strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea that is also home to hundreds of militants associated with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and an armed offshoot of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

Mofaz also said the army would continue "targeted killings" of terror suspects in Gaza and the West Bank, a practice condemned by human rights monitors as tantamount to extrajudicial executions.

Israel says it has a right to launch precise attacks on wanted militants and to closely monitor Palestinian movements to preempt the sort of suicide bombings and shootings by Palestinian gunmen that have claimed more than 700 Israeli lives since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

About 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military incursions during the same period.

Monday's sweeping restrictions also banned foreign journalists and humanitarian aid workers from entering Gaza, although the latter would be allowed to cross the border on emergency missions, an Israeli security official said. Later in the day, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces said the army would allow journalists to enter Gaza if they obtained IDF permission a day in advance. However, the regulation failed to address media demands for unfettered access during breaking news events.

In a statement, Israel's Foreign Press Assn. said the open-ended move to limit access to the media "is extremely disturbing and suggests an utter disregard for basic press freedoms."

The Israeli army has conducted thorough checks of foreigners entering Gaza since a British citizen blew himself up two weeks ago at a Tel Aviv jazz bar, killing a waitress and two musicians.

The bomber, along with a British accomplice who managed to escape, had visited Gaza shortly before the attack.

While calling on the Palestinian leadership to dismantle terrorist cells, Powell has also urged Israel to promote his peace drive by enacting measures to alleviate poverty and joblessness in Palestinian territories under military closure.

"The declared opening was for public relations during the visit by Colin Powell," said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib of the eased travel restrictions, which still apply for West Bank laborers. "They make a fuss, but on the ground nothing changes."

Like other officials, Khatib criticized Israel for failing to accept a U.S.-led peace plan, known as the "road map," which calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005, along with security guarantees for Israel and a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion.

Khatib called on Israel to hand out more than 100,000 new work permits to Palestinians to offset 70% unemployment in the Palestinian territories. He also blamed military curfews and closures for dragging down local commerce and diminishing exports.

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