JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel began cutting electrical power to the Gaza Strip as part of a plan to sever economic ties with the territory, an Israeli defense official said on Friday.
It is the latest in a series of Israeli steps to increase pressure on Gaza, ruled by the Hamas Islamists since June and the source of repeated rocket attacks into the Jewish state.
A spokesman for Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel cut 5 percent of electricity late on Thursday on one of 10 high-power lines that supply the Gaza Strip.
The reduction will, at this point, translate to less than 1 percent of the 124 megawatts Israel supplies for the entire coastal territory, he said.
“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,” spokesman Shlomo Dror said.
Critics accuse Israel of imposing a blockade that amounts to “collective punishment” of the population after it cut fuel to Gaza’s main power plant last month, leading to blackouts.
Israel’s deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Israel is “trying to reduce the Gaza Strip’s dependence on Israel in many fields … the High Court ruled that we are acting in a correct and appropriate manner.”
Israel, which occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, 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.
Asked to comment, U.S. State Dept spokesman Tom Casey said he was not familiar with the Israeli decision.
“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,” he added
Israel has stepped up military action against Hamas since it claimed responsibility for a Palestinian suicide bombing on Monday, the first such attack by the Islamist faction inside the Jewish state since 2004.
Palestinian militants blasted open the territory’s border with Egypt last month in defiance of an Israeli blockade. Egypt re-sealed the border on Sunday.
Last month Vilnai said Israel wanted to wash its hands of Gaza altogether by handing over the supply of electricity, water and medicine to others.
Israel declared Gaza an “enemy entity” in September. The “enemy” designation was a green light for sanctions although Israel said it would not inflict a humanitarian crisis on Gaza’s 1.5 million people.
Hamas has described militant attacks on Israel, which have also been condemned internationally, as responses to Israeli military operations in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
On Thursday the Israeli army said troops had uncovered underground rocket silos in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel has threatened a major ground offensive into Gaza to try to end the rocket salvoes.