Israeli court halts Gaza electricity cut

Israel Materials 30 November 2007 16:30 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - The Israeli government can continue cutting fuel supplies to residents of the Gaza Strip but must postpone an electricity cut planned for this weekend, Israel's Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Israel began reducing fuel supplies to Gaza last month in response to ongoing rocket fire from Palestinian militants, and planned to begin scaling back electricity beginning Sunday. Friday's ruling came in response to a legal challenge from a coalition of human rights groups that claims the policy constitutes collective punishment.

The Islamic group Hamas seized control of Gaza in June. Israel responded by largely closing off the territory and its 1.5 million people from the outside world. Gaza is dependent on Israel for all of its fuel and about half its electricity.

"We were not convinced that the decision by (the state) to limit the amount of fuel transferred to the Gaza Strip harms, at this point, vital humanitarian needs in the strip," the three-judge panel wrote in their decision.

But the judges ruled that the government must suspend the electricity cut it planned to implement Sunday because it had not provided enough details on which areas and vital installations would be affected. The court gave state representatives 12 days to respond.

"We welcome the delay in electricity cuts and expect that at the end of the day the court will prevent the military from cutting electricity to Gaza, but we are concerned about the court's failure to intervene in the fuel cuts," said Sari Bashi of Gisha, one of the rights groups spearheading the legal challenge.

Israel has said the electricity cuts will be minor and will not cause harm to installations like hospitals, water pumps and sewage plants. But Bashi said the step would cause humanitarian damage.

"Any intentional reduction in vital services to Gaza residents who cannot receive fuel, electricity or other goods except from Israel constitutes illegal collective punishment," Bashi said.

The cutback plan came in response to near-daily barrages of rockets and mortars fired by Gaza militants, which have killed 12 Israelis and disrupted life for thousands. So far, Israeli sanctions and regular military operations have failed to stop the fire. Israel ordered the progressive utility cuts hoping that Palestinian residents would pressure militant groups to stop the attacks.

Following an outcry over the prospect of further harming Gaza's poverty-stricken population, Israel said the cutbacks were part of its disengagement from Gaza. Israel withdrew its troops and dismantled all Jewish settlements there in 2005.

Israeli government spokesman David Baker defended the government policy Friday, calling it "a non-lethal means for Israel to send a message to those responsible for the rocket fire from Gaza."

"We will not accept this threat to Israeli towns and civilians, and we will take all steps necessary to protect them," Baker said.

Israel is tightening sanctions on Hamas-controlled Gaza, while resuming peace negotiations with the moderate Palestinian government headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has ruled only the West Bank since his forces in Gaza were routed by Hamas.

This week, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Md., and officially announced that negotiations would resume after a violent seven-year hiatus.