The poor and the sick suffer as Israel cuts power to Gaza

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The Independent Online

Mansour Rahal lay unconscious in the intensive care unit of Gaza City's Shifa hospital, linked to an electrically powered ventilator, the coloured monitor above his head showing his heart, respiration and oxygen saturation rate.

On Thursday last week, he was driving his donkey cart through Beit Lahiya when it was destroyed by a missile which targeted militants in a nearby car – it also killed his mother and older brother. His hopes of survival yesterday depended on there being enough diesel to keep in operation the four generators which were Shifa's only source of power.

His doctor, Kamal al-Geathny, said: "If the fuel runs out for the generators and we have no power, he and six other patients in this unit will die."

This was the scene at the hospital before Israel authorised limited supplies of fuel and medicine to Gaza last night after a wave of international condemnation for its act of "collective punishment" in imposing a four-day total embargo, which had left much of the Strip without electricity.

The embargo caused industrial diesel to run out, shutting down Gaza's only power station on Sunday, plunging Gaza City into darkness – large parts of it are still without power.

The EU, the British Government and, in unusually strong terms, the UN had earlier registered their opposition to a closure which the UN's refugee agency, UNRWA, had warned would also force it to halt emergency food distribution to 870,000 Gaza residents unless nylon bags needed to package basics, such as rice and lentils, arrived by tomorrow or Thursday.

The UN agency said last night it was hoping that the bags would now be allowed into Gaza.

UNRWA had transferred some of its own fuel yesterday to maintain services at two of Gaza's biggest hospitals, Shifa in Gaza City and the European Hospital in Khan Yunis, which are running on generators because of the fuel blockade imposed to put pressure on Hamas to stop Qassam rocket attacks on Israel.

Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aryeh Mekel, said that 2.2 million litres of industrial fuel for the power plant, 500,000 litres of diesel for generators and supplies of cooking gas would be allowed in, along with 50 trucks of food and medicine, but the restrictions on petrol would continue. Christopher Gunness, UNRWA's chief spokesman, said yesterday in response: "This drip drip, door closed, door left ajar approach makes it very difficult to provide for the needs of well nigh a million people in Gaza."

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, had earlier declared: "As far as I'm concerned, all the residents of Gaza can walk and have no fuel... because they have a murderous terrorist regime that doesn't allow people in the south of Israel to live in peace." Officials suggested that continued supplies would depend on whether barrages of rockets into Israel continued. "We are not committing on how often we will do this," Shlomo Dror of the Israeli military's civil administration said.

Israeli media quoted a Foreign Ministry official claiming rocket attacks on Israel had lessened in the past three days "We hope Hamas have got the message."

John Ging, UNRWA's director of operations in Gaza, said the people of Sderot, the Israeli town worst hit by the rocket attacks, were entitled to protection. But he said the majority of Gaza people did not support the attacks and were powerless to prevent them. "We cannot measure punitive sanctions, collective in their nature, by the number of rockets fired. One's actions have to be measured against the rule of law the legal standards that are the fabric of civilised society," said Mr Ging.

Sari Bashi, the director of the Israeli civil rights organisation Gisha, said Israel had done by the "back door" what it have been prevented from doing by the Israeli Supreme Court – cut directly the electricity supplies from Israel which provide well over half of Gaza's power.

Gisha said the crisis had been "planned in advance".

Mr Ging strongly endorsed Gaza power station managers' rejection of Israeli claims that Hamas had exaggerated the crisis and had created an artificial emergency. "The representative of the government of Israel who said that was quite obviously misinformed about the reality here, and needs to be made accountable for making that statement," he said.

Sami Jala al-Abdallah, the operations engineer at the Gaza power station, said that it had been shut down when there was the absolute minimum of fuel needed to keep the equipment in working order. He and the other engineers had asked permission from the politically run Gaza Energy Authority to close the power station at 3pm on Sunday but they had been "begged" to keep it open until 8pm. The pressure from Hamas was to keep it open, not to shut it down, he added.

Dr Geathny, who spent seven years working at the Shaere Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, and says he had maintained contact with his Jewish former colleagues "until now", said he believed "most people in Israel want to live in peace. I think the problem is the Israeli government and that is what my [former Israeli] colleagues think also." Asked whether the Qassams were the main factor behind Israel's embargo, he replied: "I think we are just witnessing a cycle of more and more violence."

Dr Raed al-Arani, a general surgeon and the spokesman at Shifa Hospital said yesterday afternoon that the hospitals' four generators had only 24 hours of fuel left. He also claimed that five patients had been brought to the hospital in the last 24 hours, including three infants, who had died either as a result of hypothermia or from power cuts interrupting vital oxygen supplies at home.

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