Rice: U.S. 'Will Not Abandon Innocent Palestinians in Gaza'

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the United States "will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza," shortly after Israel declared the territory to be an enemy entity in order to cut off power and fuel supplies to the coastal strip.

At the same time, Rice said Gaza, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas group, "is a hostile entity to us as well."

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Israel's Security Cabinet — the country's top political and defense ministers — did not set a date for a cutoff. A statement from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Israel did not intend to provoke a humanitarian crisis.

Rice arrived on Wednesday to mediate progress on key issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians before a U.S.-sponsored peace gathering.

The conference tentatively is scheduled for Washington in November. Western powers have concluded Abbas has a freer hand to reach a final accord with Israel now that he has expelled Islamic Hamas militants from power after they seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Abbas has set up a new government in the West Bank, headed by the U.S.-backed Salam Fayyad.

The Israeli Security Cabinet's declaration of Gaza as an "enemy entity" was the most severe of the retaliatory measures Israel has taken recently against rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel.

Members of the Security Cabinet, a group of top political and defense officials, said Wednesday's vote authorized the government to cut off supplies to Gaza. However, they said there was no decision on when or whether the cutoff would actually begin. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

Gaza is almost entirely dependent on Israeli suppliers for power, water and fuel, and a cutoff would draw international condemnation.

Israel hopes the measures will put pressure on Hamas to stop the near-daily rocket fire. "The objective is to weaken Hamas," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Wednesday's meeting, according to one participant.

Israel's current policy of airstrikes and brief ground incursions has been ineffective. Barak also said Israel was moving closer to a large-scale military operation in Gaza — an option that has not halted rocket fire in the past and would likely mean heavy casualties on both sides.

"Every day that passes brings us closer to an operation in Gaza," Barak was quoted as saying. He said an "array of options" would be considered, however, before a major invasion.

The crude rockets have killed 12 people in southern Israel in the past seven years, injured dozens more and disrupted daily life in the region, which Israel evacuated two years ago.

Hamas' control of Gaza will burden Abbas as he and Olmert try to move toward a final accord. The first step is hammering out a joint platform on the most contentious issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the Washington conference — final borders, the status of Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Rice has said that meeting must be "substantive." The Palestinians hope the gathering will bring a solid framework for a final agreement but Israel wants to retain greater flexibility with a more general statement of goals.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries say they won't attend the conference unless they're convinced of real progress toward working out a final accord that would entail the establishment of a Palestinian state.