( Reuters ) - Israeli officials prepared a plan on Wednesday to cut power supplies to the Gaza Strip in response to a surge in Palestinian cross-border rocket attacks.
"We plan to dramatically reduce the two-thirds of power that is supplied by Israel, which will take several weeks," Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's security cabinet declared Gaza an "enemy entity" in September, three months after Hamas Islamists routed the rival Fatah faction for control of the coastal enclave, whose borders are controlled by Israel.
The "enemy" designation was a green light for sanctions, although Israeli officials said legal experts would first be consulted on the humanitarian effects on Gaza's 1.5 million people. The United Nations has told Israel it must not inflict collective punishment by cutting vital supplies and services.
Palestinian leaders argue that, despite Israel's withdrawal of troops from Gaza in 2005, it remains an occupying power because it controls the frontiers and, as such, is obliged under international law to ensure the welfare of the population.
After Palestinian militants fired at least 16 short-range rockets on Tuesday, one of which hit an apartment building in Israel, an Israeli Defence Ministry panel met to finalise a proposal for cutting utilities to Gaza, officials said. The plan was to be presented to Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday.
According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Gaza's population uses about 200 megawatts of electricity, of which 120 are provided directly from Israeli power lines, 17 are delivered from Egypt, and 65 are produced by a local Palestinian plant.
"The recommendation is to start disconnecting gradually, without causing harm to anything that could create a humanitarian problem, like hospitals," Vilnai said.
A Defence Ministry source said Barak was authorised to implement the sanctions, but he might seek another vote in the security cabinet and thus share responsibility with Olmert. The two men lead different parties within the ruling coalition.
The Defence Ministry committee that drafted the power cuts included legal advisers, the Defence Ministry source said. Olmert's office had no immediate comment.
Hamas has refrained from firing rockets since it seized control of Gaza in June but has not stopped attacks by other Palestinian militant groups.
"International law requires that occupation forces take care of the needs of the occupied peoples," Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. "Exploiting human needs to blackmail our people will never weaken us."
Hamas has described militant attacks, which have also been condemned internationally, as responses to Israeli military operations in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
The makeshift Palestinian rockets rarely cause deaths but have spread panic in Israel's southern border towns. Israel has threatened to invade Gaza should the salvoes continue.
The administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Western-backed rival to Hamas whose mandate has been effectively reduced to the larger West Bank, condemned Israel's plan to impose sanctions.
"This decision is a form of collective punishment against our people in Gaza," Palestinian cabinet secretary Saadi al-Kronz said in a statement.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the proposed sanctions would be a "non-violent response for bringing about a lessening of the missile threat to our citizens".