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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
Gaza absent in conference build-up
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Jerusalem

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been in the Middle East working to try and bring the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams closer together ahead of a planned Middle East conference in the US next month.

Her current trip includes meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as trips to Egypt and a meeting in with Jordan's King Abdullah in London.

Condoleezza Rice with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
The US is working hard to bolster Fatah at the expense of Hamas
The agenda for discussion is likely to include borders, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian refugees and the possible division of Jerusalem. But the one issue that appears to be on no-one's lips is that of Gaza, and the territories control by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Despite holding over a third of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, this crammed, impoverished strip of land is being swept under the diplomatic carpet ahead of the negotiations.

Last month, Israel designated Gaza a "hostile territory", threatening to reduce electricity supplies in the future and introduce yet more travel restrictions to and from the territory.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for rocket fire from Gaza.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel but says that it is willing to offer a long-term truce to the Jewish state if it withdraws to 1967 borders.

Drastic reduction

According to humanitarian organisations, the situation in Gaza has worsened since the territory was labelled "hostile".

The movement of both people and goods has been drastically reduced, according to the United Nations.

Hamas is trying to gain leverage from the suffering of the Palestinian people
Israeli spokesman Mark Regev

The average of 106 truckloads daily into and out of the strip recorded between 10 June and 13 September has dropped to approximately 50 truckloads.

There has also been a significant reduction in the number of patients leaving the territory for medical treatment in Israel or the West Bank.

Fewer then five patients crossed each day compared to an average of 40 patients per day in July, according to the UN.

The economy is in ruins - as no goods can be exported - and banks are even reporting a shortage of hard currency.

Over 6,000 Palestinians - mainly students and workers - are waiting to leave the territory for overseas.

In the last month, only a few hundred have been permitted to travel by Israel.

'Exploiting suffering'

"What we are seeing is collective punishment," says Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organisation based in Tel Aviv.

Hamas supporters in Gaza
Hamas support remains high in Gaza despite pressure from Israel

"The Israeli government is punishing 1.5 million Palestinians to get at Hamas."

The Israeli government, however, insists it is committed to the constant flow of humanitarian supplies into the territory and says that the suffering in Gaza is the responsibility of Hamas.

"What is happening is that Hamas is opposed to practical solutions in getting the crossings opened and trying to gain leverage from the suffering of the Palestinian people," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry.

In light of the worsening conditions and upcoming conference, the deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said his movement was willing to sit with its Palestinian political opponents Fatah to reach an agreement.

Fatah officials have refused to speak with Hamas since its takeover, by force, of Gaza in June.

But Mr Abbas snubbed the move. He has also been warned by both the Americans and Israelis not to deal with Hamas.

Conference doubts

So where does that leave Gaza - and Hamas - ahead of the conference?

Some members of Fatah worry that Hamas may try and scupper the conference before it goes ahead.

"They obviously can't make it a success," one senior Palestinian official joked. "But they can stop it happening," he added more seriously.

This is a reference to the possibility of a Hamas attack on Israeli soil in the coming days.

For now, Mr Abbas seems intent on trying to make a success of the upcoming conference.

But with Hamas and Gaza sidelined, some people are asking how comprehensive an agreement he can reach, if he can reach a deal at all.

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