Israel Eases Blockade; Scuffles Erupt Between Gaza Protesters, Egyptian Guards

Israel eased its siege of Gaza for a day Tuesday, sending in medicine and fuel for Gaza City's power plant. But tensions erupted over Egypt's closure of its Gaza border, with hundreds of Palestinian protesters breaking through the crossing and clashing with Egyptian guards.

Ten Egyptian police and about 60 protesters were hurt as protesters hurled stones at the Egyptians and Palestinian gunmen fired briefly in the air. Protesters hurled insults at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, calling him a coward. Egypt has kept its border closed, tacitly supported the blockade, amid concerns about a spillover of Hamas-style militancy to its territory

Also Tuesday, Palestinian militants fired 11 rockets toward Israel, despite the easing of restrictions. The initial blockade, along with a fuel cutoff, was imposed in response to a rocket barrage last week on Israeli border towns.

The sanctions have deepened hardship for most of the 1.5 million residents, already largely cut off from the world since the Islamic militant Hamas seized control by force in June.

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Gas stations remained closed Tuesday, and fewer cars were seen on the streets because of fuel shortages.

Hospitals kept running on generators during extensive power outages, and operations were largely unaffected. Most bakeries shut down, and long lines formed at the ones that remained open. A shipment of cooking gas sent in by Israel on Tuesday was sold out in an hour.

Gaza City baker Haj Salman, 68, who uses wood to run his oven, did booming business. Customers lined up to have home-made bread dough baked in his oven.

One of those waiting for his bread was 22-year-old Sami Othman, whose father, a taxi driver, has been idled by the fuel shortage. Othman said he felt the people of Gaza were being squeezed by the confrontation between Hamas and its rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "They are using us for fuel for their internal fighting and political conflicts," said Sami, who would not give his last name.

Electricity in Gaza City was gradually coming back on Tuesday, after Israel sent in 700,000 liters of fuel, enough to run Gaza's power plant for two days. In all, fuel for a week's worth of operations was to be delivered through Thursday, as part of the partial lifting of the blockade. Israel and Egypt also supply electricity directly to other areas of Gaza, and power was not disrupted there in recent days.

International aid groups warned Monday they may have to suspend food distribution to hundreds of thousands of people by the end of the week because they lack truck fuel.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. administration has spoken to Israeli officials "about the importance of not allowing a humanitarian crisis to unfold." Israeli officials were receptive, she said, adding that she blames Hamas for situation.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided Monday to let in some fuel and medicine, but said he was prepared to hit Gaza hard to restore calm in Israeli towns.

Abbas said Tuesday he will not pull out of peace talks with Israel despite its blockade of Gaza. Abbas has been under growing pressure at home to suspend the recently restarted U.S.-backed negotiations with Israel, which are to produce a peace deal in 2008.

"Halting contacts with Israel is useless," Abbas said in his first comment since the latest round of Israel-Hamas fighting erupted last week. "On the contrary, we should intensify our contacts and our meetings to stop the suffering of our people."

Abbas leads the moderate Fatah faction which is embroiled in a power struggle with Hamas over control of the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza from Fatah by force in June but Fatah still runs the West Bank. The Islamic militant group, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, is not a party to the peace talks.

Abbas also offered to have his government take control of the Palestinian side of Gaza crossings. Israel's refusal to deal with Hamas officials contributed to its decision to severely restrict the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006.

Hamas has not commented on the idea, but Israel's deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, told The Associated Press on Tuesday the plan was not practical. "It's a great idea but they (the Palestinians) can't implement it," he said. Rice said Tuesday the proposal is worth studying.

The international Red Cross called Tuesday for Israel to lift the blockade and said aid must be allowed into the territory on a regular basis to prevent a complete collapse of health and sanitary services.

"Deliveries of essential humanitarian goods must be secured in the long run to prevent more hardship and to avoid the collapse of the already fragile infrastructure," said Dorothea Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Israeli officials have accused Hamas of manufacturing a crisis, charging that the Gaza government has more energy reserves than it is letting on.

Still, Israeli tanker trucks were pumping 700,000 liters (185,000 gallons) of fuel to the other side, enough to provide electricity to Gaza City for two days. Other trucks were delivering cooking gas, and a shipment of medicine was sent later in the day.