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Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Monday, 10 November 2008

Gaza shut to fuel and journalists

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Erez Crossing

Medical patient passes through Erez crossing (AFP)
Erez is usually closed to all but medical cases, diplomats and journalists

Over the last six days, Israel has all but closed its crossings with the Gaza Strip.

No fuel (paid for by foreign donors) has been allowed into Gaza for its power station, no food has been allowed in for the United Nations' aid distribution centres on which most Gazans rely.

No journalists are being allowed into Gaza to cover the story.

The one crossing through which people can get into Gaza, if they have Israeli permission, is at the northern tip of the territory, at Erez.

It has a vast terminal building for security checks, but for days, journalists have not even been allowed further than the security barrier outside.

'Minimising movement'

This morning, we tried to get through.

Having handed in our passports and Israeli Government press cards, we waited by the front barrier, close to two Israeli army jeeps.

Over the hours that passed, we watched a group of Red Cross personnel get clearance to enter the terminal to go into Gaza.

Activist boat arrives carrying European MPs

The head of the United Nations relief mission in Gaza, John Ging, arrived at the gate too. He was allowed to pass. Earlier in the week, UN staff had been denied entry into Gaza.

But we were told we would not be allowed in today.

Coming the other way, past the armed guards, we counted 10 Palestinians, in small family groups.

They smiled as they loaded their luggage into the taxis that have been struggling for business here. A French journalist came through as well.

"I have been stuck in Gaza for five days," he told us, not wanting us to name him.

"Every time I called the manager of this place, he told me no journalists were being allowed through but I tried my luck this morning and they finally let me out. It's like they are trying to squeeze the journalists, I don't know why."

There have been severe restrictions at Israel's border crossings with Gaza for some time, but they were tightened further in the summer of 2007 as a means of putting pressure on Hamas, which violently seized control of the territory.

Truce tensions

Last Tuesday, more than four months into a ceasefire, Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip.

Since then, seven Hamas militants have been killed in clashes and airstrikes.

The army says it was responding to a specific threat and that it did not consider that the truce had been broken.

Tank on Gaza-Israel boundery, 5.11.08
The closures follow Israeli operations and Palestinian rocket strikes

Palestinian militants said they regarded it as an "Israeli aggression" and responded by firing dozens of rockets and mortar shells towards Israeli border towns.

No Israelis have been injured, but the Ministry of Defence took the decision to close most of Gaza's crossings in response.

The Ministry's spokesman told us only humanitarian cases were being allowed in or out of Gaza.

When asked why journalists were being prevented from going through the terminal when diplomats and civilians were not, he said: "We want to minimise the movement of people through the crossing for the security of our staff there, if we allow journalists through, then many other foreigners will want to go in as well."

The Foreign Press Association in Israel said the restrictions were a "serious violation of press freedom".

"[The Israeli authorities had] offered no plausible explanation for the extended lockdown... and current hostilities need not preclude movement of journalists," it said.

Of course, the passage of journalists is far from the most serious problem.

The head of Gaza's power plant says that one of the turbines there has already had to be shut down, reducing the amount of electricity being supplied.

He says that the plant will have to be closed completely overnight unless it receives fuel.

'Prison'

As a protest at the months long Israeli blockade, a boat carrying European politicians docked in Gaza over the weekend. Former British cabinet minister Claire Short was among the passengers.

"This is brutal, deliberate collective punishment," she told us on a mobile phone from southern Gaza.

"It is in breach of Geneva Conventions, and the United Kingdom and European Union are colluding in it with their silence. Israel is trying to batter and beat a whole people just to crush Hamas."

"Gaza's a prison," said Baroness Jenny Tonge, who had also arrived on the boat from Cyprus.

"We've seen shortages of absolutely everything. The schools don't have paper, the hospitals don't have medicines. We've just been shown some of the tunnels to Egypt which have had to be dug to get badly needed supplies," she added.

At the outset of the ceasefire, Gazans hoped that the strict sanctions imposed on them would be eased.

A senior foreign diplomat in the region has expressed to the BBC his disappointment that the opportunity for "confidence building measures" has not been taken by Israel in the months since.

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