JERUSALEM -- Israel declared the Hamas-run Gaza Strip to be "hostile territory" yesterday, setting the stage for possible cutoffs of fuel and electricity, and overshadowing a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to prepare for a November peace conference.
Israel did not say when it might cut the flow of power or fuel to the impoverished coastal enclave. A statement from the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his government would study the legal ramifications before imposing such sanctions and seek to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
Israel also said it might further curtail shipment of nonhumanitarian goods into Gaza.
Israeli officials have yet to find an answer to the Gaza-based militants who routinely fire homemade Kassam rockets into southern Israel, despite limited military raids and numerous airstrikes into the enclave. Yesterday's designation by Israel's Security Cabinet was meant to ramp up pressure on Hamas to halt the salvos.
Israel is the sole source of fuel for Gaza and supplier of most of its electricity and basic goods. Cutting supplies would make life more difficult for Gaza's 1.4 million residents, who have already endured months of border closures.
The Security Cabinet's decision drew swift denunciations from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and human rights activists, who argued that halting fuel and power would amount to collective punishment and a violation of international laws protecting civilians.
"They should not be punished for the unacceptable actions of militants and extremists," Ban said in a statement urging Israel to reconsider.
Rice, speaking at a joint news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, did not endorse the Israeli move but noted that Hamas is a "hostile entity to the United States as well."
The U.S. "will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza and indeed will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs," Rice said.
Livni defended the legality of the government's decision, saying Israel was not responsible for allowing deliveries to Gaza beyond humanitarian goods. She said Israel was distinguishing between Palestinian moderates, such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and extremists.
But Abbas' office joined his Hamas foes in denouncing the move. Abbas' Fatah faction was driven from Gaza by the Islamist movement in June and now controls only the West Bank.
Rice also met with Olmert and other top Israeli officials to lay groundwork for a U.S.-sponsored peace conference that is already looking shaky.
Her visit, which ends today after meetings in the West Bank with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, was designed to build momentum for the planned regional meeting in Washington.
But top Palestinians and other Arab leaders have been warning that there is little point in attending a conference that doesn't produce substantive progress toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We want to be as supportive as possible of this bilateral dialogue," Rice said. "We are hopeful that it can move forward to common understandings of a way forward to the creation of a Palestinian state."
President Bush announced in July that he would call Middle East leaders together for talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state. But plans for the gathering remain vague.
Palestinians want the conference to yield an agreement that lays out the framework of a final peace, with a timetable for reaching terms on Palestinian statehood. Israel favors a more general declaration that is vague enough to prevent a rebellion among rightist members of Olmert's governing coalition.
Some analysts say chances for reviving the peace process, frozen since 2001, have improved since Hamas seized sole control of Gaza. The violent split left Israel and the United States with the chance to deal with Abbas' moderate government while ignoring Hamas.
Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.