Israel's blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is causing food and medicine shortages and creating a health-care crisis for Palestinians, Israeli and Palestinian officials warned Tuesday.
Across the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians staged peaceful protest marches, waving Palestinian flags and calling for an end to security measures imposed after Islamic militants carried out four suicide bombings in nine days inside Israel.
Western diplomats also voiced concern about the Israeli measures.
"The Israelis are going to have to choose soon between keeping the closure on and witnessing bread riots in Gaza," said one senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The blockade's hardships are beginning to get attention in the Israeli press, and the Cabinet on Tuesday reportedly was discussing ways to ease the restrictions.
Israeli newspapers ran a horror story Tuesday about a 3-month-old Palestinian boy who died after soldiers prevented his parents from rushing him from Kalqilya to a hospital in nearby Tulkarm for treatment of an asthma attack.
While it insisted that there was "no causal relationship" between the delay at the roadblock and the infant's death, the army said the deputy commander of Israel's joint patrol in the Kalqilya area will face court-martial for "having demonstrated insufficient sensitivity."
The army also announced that it will issue humanitarian permits for Palestinians seeking medical care, and it allowed dozens of trucks carrying staples to cross from Egypt into Gaza.
The army has been preventing Palestinians from moving freely between about 475 West Bank cities, towns and villages since March 5. That was a day after the last of four bombs exploded in Israeli cities over a nine-day stretch, killing more than 60 people and wounding many more. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared war on Hamas, the Islamic militant organization that claimed responsibility for the bombings, and on the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group.
Israel barred about 60,000 Palestinian laborers from going to their jobs inside Israel and increased permits to workers from abroad to fill positions held by Palestinians. It set up roadblocks at the entrances to villages and towns across the West Bank, banning travel by Palestinians between communities for any reason.
In addition, food supplies normally delivered daily from Israeli distributors to West Bank grocers are being blocked, and Palestinian grocers say they are running short of staples.
The security measures are popular with a badly frightened Israeli public. But they are beginning to make some Cabinet ministers uneasy.
"We cannot continue with an absolute closure for a prolonged period," Finance Minister Avraham Shohat said Tuesday on Israel Radio. "Personal security takes precedence, but arrangements have to be made so that goods can go in which the population needs."
But Peres remains under intense political pressure to keep the blockade in force. The closure also is intended to increase pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to do more to help Israel in its campaign to uproot Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Arafat said Sunday that he will smuggle flour into Gaza himself if the Israelis don't ease the blockade.