( AP )- Palestinians in Gaza will be forced to live without electricity eight hours a day, beginning Sunday, because Israel has sharply reduced fuel supplies to the territory's only electric plant, the head of Gaza's energy authority said.
Israel said the fuel cutback was meant to send a "stern message" to Gaza militants to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel. The power outages come just days ahead of President Bush's visit to the region to promote nascent talks between Israel and the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert said the military campaign against Gaza militants has grown harsher in recent days. On Sunday, five Palestinians were killed, including at least two civilians.
Immediately after Islamic Hamas militants seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, Israel sealed its border with the territory, cutting off the flow of all but humanitarian supplies. In October, it began to gradually scale back fuel shipments.
On Sunday, Kanan Obeid , chairman of Gaza's Hamas -run energy authority, said Gaza now has only 35 percent of the power its 1.5 million residents need. Israel supplies all of Gaza's fuel and 60 percent of the impoverished territory's electricity.
"We have decided to reduce the amount of electricity that we supply and to have a gradual program, starting from today, of cutting the electricity for eight hours every day," Obeid said.
Even before the latest cutback, which came as winter was setting in, blackouts in Gaza were common because Israeli military strikes have knocked out electrical transformers.
"The Israeli policy is not against Hamas , it is against us, the ordinary people," said Hassan Akram , owner of a grocery in Gaza City. "We are the only losers. Now it's cold and there's no electricity."
Reem Abu Ali, a teacher and 38-year-old mother of four, stopped by the grocery to buy candles.
"My children have exams. How will they study? How are we going to warm our houses? If the border opens, I might leave Gaza forever. This is no place to live," she said.
Hamas announced that its men launched three rockets into Israel on Sunday - a rare statement from the group, which has largely left rocket fire to smaller militant organizations.
"Israel decided to send a stern message to the terror groups in Gaza, in the wake of continued rocket attacks, that we will take all measures necessary to defend our citizens," Israeli government spokesman David Baker said of the fuel cutbacks.
The economic sanctions have been carried out in tandem with a military campaign against Gaza militants.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak "instructed the security forces to ratchet up the Israeli response" to a Palestinian rocket attack deep inside Israel on Thursday, Olmert said Sunday. Seventeen Gazans have since been killed - five of them civilians - in the airstrikes and ground assaults that followed.
Israel is trying to advance peacemaking with the moderate West Bank-based government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas .
On Sunday, a hardline lawmaker again threatened to pull his faction out of Olmert's government if Israel opens talks with the Palestinians on the key issues dividing them. The loss of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which has 11 of parliament's 120 seats, would badly weaken Olmert's coalition.
"Any start of negotiations on the core issues ... any attempt or removal of settlements or (unauthorized settlement) outposts, as far as we are concerned, will force us to quit immediately," party leader Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio.
Olmert has promised that the negotiations, relaunched at a U.S.-sponsored conference, would address the main issues - final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees from the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
Olmert and Abbas , who have been meeting regularly in recent months, are tentatively scheduled to sit down together again on Tuesday, a day before Bush arrives, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Sunday.