By Ori Lewis, Reuters, Feb. 8, 2008
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Friday it had cut electricity supplies to Gaza as part of a campaign against militant attacks but stressed the reduction was minimal, amid international criticism.
It is the latest Israeli step to increase pressure on Gaza, ruled by Hamas Islamists since June, and follows Hamas's claim of responsibility for a suicide bombing in southern Israel on Monday, the first claimed by the group since 2004.
Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Hamas wanted to provoke Israeli forces into going back into the Gaza Strip but that he preferred using "economic measures".
Shlomo Dror, spokesman for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, said Israel trimmed the flow of electricity overnight by 5 percent on one of 10 high-power lines. The reduction amounted to less than 1 percent of the 124 megawatts that Israel supplies to Gaza.
Israel said its goal in reducing the electricity supply was to disconnect gradually from the coastal territory, which Hamas Islamists seized by force after routing secular Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Dror said more cuts could be made after further evaluation.
"This is a signal to the Palestinians that we see their conduct in Gaza and that we want to continue the disengagement process. I hope they will focus their effort on getting new sources of energy instead of developing ... rockets," Dror said.
At least 36 rockets and mortars were fired at southern Israel from Gaza on Friday, an Israeli army spokeswoman said, causing damage and minor injuries.
Israel temporarily halted fuel deliveries to Gaza's main power plant last month but quickly restored supplies after facing international criticism for blackouts in Gaza City.
The United Nations and some human rights groups have criticized Israeli fuel and electricity cuts as "collective punishment" against Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
Israel's deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, said Israel was "trying to reduce the Gaza Strip's dependence on Israel in many fields", and that the electricity reductions were backed by Israel's highest court.
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967 and pulled troops and settlers out in 2005 but still controls its northern and eastern borders, airspace and coastal waters.
Apart from Israel's 124 megawatts, a local power station in Gaza City produces 64 megawatts and Egypt supplies 17 megawatts, Israel's defense ministry said.
A U.S. State Department spokesman commented: "We understand Israel's right to defend itself, but we do not think that actions should be taken that would infringe upon or worsen the humanitarian situation for the civilian population in Gaza."
Britain's ministers of foreign affairs and international development said: "We call on the Government of Israel to reverse its decision immediately, to avoid any further planned cuts, and to fulfill its obligations under international law."
Their statement also condemned violence against Israeli civilians, including Monday's suicide bombing and rocket fire.
After Hamas blasted open Gaza's border with Egypt last month in defiance of an Israeli blockade, Vilnai suggested Israel should wash its hands of Gaza altogether by handing over the supply of electricity, water and medicine to others.
Hamas has suggested that Gaza sever links with Israel and turn to Egypt. That idea has drawn opposition from Abbas, who wants a unified Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Egypt re-sealed the border with Gaza on Sunday.
(Additional reporting Avida Landau; editing by Andrew Roche)