By Joseph Nasr
JERUSALEM, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday rebuffed a call by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip through crossings Israel has largely sealed in two weeks of violence.
Asked by Israeli Army Radio about Ban’s appeal and whether Israel intends to reopen the passages, Barak said: "No. There needs to be calm in order for the crossings to be opened."
Ban telephoned outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday and "strongly urged (him) to facilitate the freer movement of urgently needed humanitarian supplies" and U.N. aid workers into the Gaza Strip, the U.N. press office said.
Israel closed the crossings after Palestinian militants responded with daily rocket salvoes to an Israeli army incursion on Nov. 4 into the Hamas-run territory, where a five-month-old, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire had largely been holding.
Barak acknowledged in the radio interview that the violence was touched off by the Israeli raid, which the army said destroyed a tunnel at the frontier that Gaza militants dug and could have been used to try to seize Israeli soldiers.
More than a dozen Palestinian fighters have been killed in in the past two weeks. Several Israelis have been slightly wounded by dozens of rockets.
The United Nations and humanitarian agencies have voiced concern that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, where about half of the population of 1.5 million is dependent on U.N. aid, could soon spiral into a humanitarian crisis.
"Israel is sensitive and attentive to the humanitarian needs. But also, Hamas has to impose the ceasefire on smaller groups and this will help it receive more goods through the crossings," Barak said.
"Should the other side choose to go back to the ceasefire, there will be a ceasefire," Barak said. "And if they choose to escalate there will be an operation. We are not scared of an operation but neither are we eager for it."
Olmert said on Sunday he commissioned a new plan for military action in the Gaza Strip to curb rocket attacks.
But he appeared to rule out any swift move towards a large ground operation, saying his government would monitor the situation and act in a "calm and settled" manner.
Olmert, who began U.S.-brokered peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a year ago, resigned in September in a corruption scandal. He remains prime minister until a new government is formed after the ballot.
Abbas received a telephone call from U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday in response to a letter sent by the Palestinian leader congratulating him on his election.
"Obama reiterated to President Abbas his commitment to the two-state solution and said that the continuation of the peace process was an American, Israeli and Palestinian interest," Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Israel and the Palestinians have acknowledged they have been unable to bridge gaps on key issues and said that Washington’s target of achieving a peace deal this year would not be met. (Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Writing by Joseph Nasr, Editing by Ralph Boulton)