Amid reports of dwindling food supplies and acute medical emergencies, an Israeli Cabinet member said the government had no choice but to ease the closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“At some point, we will be forced to ease the closure,” Finance Minister Avraham Shochat said this week. “We do not want to starve the residents” of the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel imposed the closure Feb. 25, in the wake of two suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon, as part of a crackdown on Hamas. The militant Islamic group has claimed responsibility for the Feb. 25 attacks, and for the March 3 bus bombing in Jerusalem and the attack the next day at a shopping center in the heart of Tel Aviv.
A blockade imposed by Israel on West Bank villages was lifted temporarily Monday to allow Palestinians to stock up on food and supplies.
At a meeting of the Labor caucus in the Knesset this week, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said he opposed the idea of collective punishment, but said there was little other choice in the fight against terror.
Peres reportedly discussed with his ministers easing the closure in the coming weeks, including allowing some Palestinian laborers back into Israel.
Meanwhile, an army intelligence officer warned that the prolonged closure could result in the collapse of Yasser Arafat’s self-rule government.
Brig. Gen. Ya’acov Amidror, the head of research for the Israel Defense Force’s intelligence branch, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel must provide backing to Arafat or face his collapse.
Arafat himself described the ongoing closure as “inhumane.”
Palestinian doctors claimed that the closure was responsible for the deaths of a number of seriously ill Palestinians.
Riyad Zanoun, the Palestinian official in charge of health affairs, said at a news conference that delays in transporting patients to Israel, and between villages in the West Bank, had led to act least two deaths.
He added that essential hospitals in the territories were facing acute shortages of medical supplies.
Hospitals in eastern Jerusalem also reported staff shortages, because doctors living in the territories were not allowed into Israel.
The closure prevents 60,000 Palestinians from going to their jobs in Israel.
On Tuesday, an Israeli military court reprimanded a major who was believed to have delayed an ambulance carrying a Palestinian infant. The 3-month-old baby, who had suffered an asthma attack, later died.