Israel cuts fuel supplies to Gaza Strip

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The Independent Online

Israel began yesterday to reduce fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the almost daily rocket fire on Sderot and other border towns and villages. A spokesman said Israel was also limiting the flow of food and medicines to "the minimum the Palestinians need to avoid a humanitarian crisis."

Dor Alon, the private Israeli company that sells fuel to Gaza, confirmed yesterday that it had been ordered by the Defence Ministry to reduce shipments. Conflicting Palestinian estimates of the size of the initial cuts ranged from 12 to 40 per cent.

Shlomo Dror, an Israeli spokesman, said that they were going to reduce supplies by 13 per cent overall, but the heaviest cuts would be on petrol for private cars. Diesel fuel for power stations, ambulances and public transport would continue to be delivered at almost the same level as before. European aid officials reported that the Gaza power station had received a full supply yesterday.

After the indefinite closure of the main Karni freight terminal, Israel announced that it would now operate only two crossings between Israel and Gaza, Erez for people and the smaller Kerem Shalom for goods. Palestinian gunmen have frequently attacked the crossings.

Mr Dror warned Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June, against further shooting at Kerem Shalom. "If they fire at the checkpoint, we shall have no choice but to close it. So on that day no truck will enter Gaza. Hamas will have to think about how it takes care of its own people."

Riyad Malki, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, denounced the fuel cut-back as a "catastrophic" decision. "This will harm the Palestinian people and not Hamas," he said. "Hamas can get all the fuel it needs, but the Palestinian people will pay for it." He urged the international community to pressure Israel to rescind the sanctions.

Israeli commentators have questioned whether the cuts will stop Palestinians launching rockets into the Negev. Some senior army officers have even suggested that they will provoke the gunmen to step up their attacks.

Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, admitted to Israel Radio that they would not halt the Qassams. With an eye on foreign critics, he denied that the new policy amounted to collective punishment. It was, he argued, another step in Israel's disengagement from responsibility for Gaza.

Israeli human rights campaigners have appealed to the Supreme Court to rule that the sanctions violate international law. Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the B'tselem watchdog group, said: "Cutting fuel supplies into Gaza will only exacerbate the humanitarian problems that already exist. Israel still exercises enormous control over Gaza. Therefore, it has obligations under international law to allow the normal running of everyday life."

* The wife of Yigal Amir, who is serving a life sentence for assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 12 years ago, gave birth to their first child in a Jerusalem hospital yesterday. The prison service rejected his request for leave to attend the boy's circumcision, or for the ceremony to take place in the prison. A year ago legal authorities reluctantly granted the assassin conjugal visits with Larissa Trimbobler, a Russian immigrant with a PhD in philosophy who divorced her first husband to marry him.