Israeli blockade forces Gaza's only power plant to shut

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The Independent Online

Gaza City was plunged into darkness last night when the Strip's only power generation plant was shut down in the aftermath of an Israeli closure blocking fuel supplies across the border.

The shutdown, which followed a closure designed to pressure Hamas into stopping rocket attacks into Israel, left the city without electric-powered heating in the winter cold and the UN said unheated hospitals had to use stand-by generators.

The fuel embargo was strongly condemned by human rights groups and aid agencies who warned that it would threaten water and sewerage as well as medical care.

But Israel said the criticism should be directed at militants whom the military said had fired well over 100 Qassam rockets in the last five days. It also accused Hamas of exaggerating the crisis and creating an artificial emergency. Associated Press quoted Kanan Obeid as saying Hamas officials had shut down the plant, which suplies 32 per cent of Gaza's needs. TV crews and reporters were invited to witness shutdown at 8pm.

Earlier, Rafik Maliha, director of the power plant had said the regular fuel shipment after the Israeli weekend ended on Saturday night had not arrived.

John Ging, Gaza director of operations for the UN refugee agency UNRWA said the situation was desperate: "The hospitals are operating on generator power.

"It means vital medical equipment is functioning, but there's no power for heating, so it's very, very cold in all the hospitals tonight."

Prior to the embargo, residents queued at petrol stations to stock up on diminishing supplies. There were also queues at bakeries, several of which started to shut down because of what they said were shortages of flour and power.

The British charity group Oxfam called the ban on fuel supplies "ineffective as well as unlawful". Gisha, a prominent Israeli human rights group said "punishing Gaza's 1.5 million civilians does not stop the rocket fire; it only creates an impossible "balance" of human suffering on both sides of the border".

Gisha had failed to prevent the cuts in fuel supplies by petitioning the Supreme Court after successfully persuading the Court to intervene to prevent the military cutting electricity supplied from Israel – which accounts for 60 per cent of Gaza's power needs, with around eight per cent coming from Egypt.

The power plant was repaired last year after being bombed in the summer of 2006 in the wake of the abduction by Gaza militants of Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit. Engineers managed to reallocate supplies in the Strip after the bombing, but it still left many areas without power for between eight and 16 hours a day at times.

Shlom Dror, spokesman for the Israeli military's civil administration said: "If they shut it down, it's not because of a fuel shortage, but because they want to create the impression of a crisis."

Mr Dror said that the shutdown "would not be comfortable, but it's not a humanitarian crisis."

Aryeh Mekel spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said: "everything would return to normal" if the rocket fire stopped.