JERUSALEM – Israeli military experts have formulated a plan to gradually cut off electricity and fuel to the Gaza Strip in response to ongoing rocket fire from the Palestinian area, defense officials said Wednesday.
Israel provides more than half of Gaza's electricity, and any power cutoff is sure to make life more difficult for residents of the already impoverished territory. The move is also certain to draw harsh international condemnation.
The plan was formulated by a team headed by Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defense minister, and is expected to be approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday, the Israeli officials said. But it is not yet clear when the decision would take effect, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge details of the planned cutoff to the press.
"It's clear that we have to cut off ... the supply of electricity and the supply of fuel," Vilnai told Army Radio. "We will dramatically reduce the flow of electricity from Israel over several weeks."
Israel's government last month declared Gaza a "hostile territory," clearing the way for Israel to impose sanctions. That decision followed the June takeover of the territory by the Islamic militants of Hamas and constant rocket fire by Gaza militants at towns in southern Israel.
Israel has severely restricted the flow of cargo and people through Gaza's borders since its seizure by Hamas, which Israel, the U.S. and the European Union consider a terrorist group.
Alaa Araj, an economic adviser to Gaza's Hamas government, said the Israeli measure was a violation of human rights that would hurt the entire population.
"Society will be drawn into darkness and daily life will be crippled," Araj said.
Israel can expect international criticism if it moves ahead with the move.
When Israel first announced its intentions last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized the idea in unusually strong terms, saying the step "would be contrary to Israel's obligations toward the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law."
Israel counters that it must act to protect its civilians suffering from near-daily barrages of crude rockets from Gaza. Despite its economic blockade and regular military incursions and airstrikes, Israel has been unable to halt the rocket fire, which has killed 12 Israelis in six years and severely disrupted life in the area, continuing after Israel pulled its army and settlers out of Gaza in 2005.
Most of the rockets have been fired by militants from the Islamic Jihad group, with Hamas' men limiting themselves mainly to launching mortars at border crossings. But Hamas has done nothing to halt the rockets, and Israel holds Hamas responsible because it controls Gaza.
Israel supplies around 60 percent of Gaza's power, with about 30 percent produced in Gaza and the rest supplied by Egypt. But even the electricity produced in Gaza could be threatened, because the power plant runs on fuel supplied by Israel.
The Israeli defense officials said Israel would start by cutting off electricity for 15 minutes and then lengthen the blackout each day as long as rocket fire continues.
Vilnai, the deputy defense minister, said Israel would not cut off the power supply to hospitals and other vital installations to try to avoid a humanitarian crisis. But Israel plans to eventually cut off all electricity to the Gaza Strip, he said.
"We hope that the Gazans will produce their own electricity and won't be dependent on us," Vilnai said.
In reality, it is unclear what effect an Israeli cutoff would have. Gaza already suffers from frequent electricity shortages, and many buildings have backup generators.
Akram Hamad, an unemployed resident of the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, said the Israeli decision was "collective punishment." The rocket fire at Israel, he said, would continue because it was "legitimate self-defense."
"This can't be accepted by international organizations, to cut electricity from the whole town because a rocket is fired," Hamad said.
In violence Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen in a passing car shot and seriously wounded a soldier waiting at a bus stop near the West Bank settlement of Ariel, the Israeli military said.
The assailants opened fire at several vehicles on the road, slightly injuring an Israeli civilian, before escaping and leaving their car in flames, the military said.
A previously unknown offshoot of Fatah, the movement headed by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, took responsibility for the shooting in a phone call to The Associated Press.
The shooting came a day after Israeli troops killed two militants from Islamic Jihad in the northern West Bank, and two days after a prisoner from Islamic Jihad was killed in a riot at the Israeli jail where he was held.