Israel agreed to allow limited supplies of fuel, medicine and food into the Gaza Strip today, easing a blockade that left large parts of the Palestinian territory without electricity and drew international protests.
The promise of relief also followed a sharp decline in the rocket attacks from Gaza that had prompted Israel to halt the shipments Thursday.
Residents of Gaza City spent a second night in cold, dark homes after the coastal enclave's only power plant shut down Sunday. The main hospital, down to its last two days of generator fuel, delayed nearly half the surgeries scheduled for Monday. Bakeries and gasoline stations closed.
The shipments authorized Monday by Defense Minister Ehud Barak include enough fuel to run the power plant for a week and the hospital generators for three days, as well as cooking gas and 50 truckloads of food and medicine.
Israeli officials said future shipments would depend on assessments of Gaza's humanitarian needs and on the number of rockets fired from Gaza. It is governed by the radical Islamic group Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction.
"We hope Hamas has got the message," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel. "When they want to reduce the number of rockets, they can do it."
Israeli police said three homemade Kassam rockets and five mortar shells fell harmlessly in Israel's western Negev region on Monday, a significant drop from the 53 that had struck during the two previous days.
Hamas political leaders offered no explanation for the decline, a decision they said was made by the group's military wing. A Hamas spokesman, Sami abu Zuhri, said foreign pressure had prompted Israel to ease the blockade, "but this does not mean the end of the siege on Gaza."
Protests against the blockade came from the European Union, the United Nations, the Oxfam relief agency, the Arab League and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They criticized what they called Israel's "collective punishment" of Gaza's 1.5 million people.
Israel's highest officials defended the blockade.
Barak said Israel "must apply more and more pressure on Gaza" to enable Israeli border communities to "live in quiet."
"If this 'quiet' requires the other side to live in 'noise,' then there will be noise," Barak told a forum at a security conference in Israel. ". . . I care more about our quiet than about theirs."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would not push Gazans into a humanitarian crisis but warned that they wouldn't live a "pleasant and comfortable life" if rockets kept coming.
"As far as I'm concerned," he told a group of legislators, "Gaza residents will walk, without gas for their cars, because they have a murderous, terrorist regime that doesn't let people in southern Israel live in peace."
Israel halted most commerce with Gaza last June after Hamas seized full control of the territory, expelling secular forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is holding peace negotiations with Israel.
The pressure tightened in October when Israel began reducing shipments of fuel to the power plant, which provides electricity to most of Gaza City's 400,000 people and about one-third of the coastal strip.
Last week's blockade, provoked by a surge in rockets, caught Gaza with less than a week's supply of basic foods.
The blockade put Egypt in a bind. Hamas demanded that Mubarak open Egypt's border with Gaza to let in the supplies cut off by Israel. But Mubarak, worried about a possible spillover of Hamas-inspired militants into Egypt, has been cooperating with Israel and the United States by tightening the border to reduce the flow of weapons and money to the Hamas-led government.
There was no sign Monday of a change in that policy. Instead, Mubarak telephoned Olmert and "stressed the need to stop the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people," according to Egypt's official Middle East News Agency.
Egypt reportedly sent as many as 300 extra police and security officers to its border with Gaza after Hamas militants threatened to break through the only crossing. Sixty empty fuel trucks lined the Gaza side as their drivers demanded to get through. Hundreds of Gazans, including doctors in white coats and ambulance drivers with their vehicles, staged a protest nearby.
Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.