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Israel may cut Gaza fuel, water if attacks persist

Israeli leaders ruled out a large-scale military response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip but threatened on Wednesday to cut off electricity or other vital supplies to the impoverished area if militants keep up attacks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli leaders ruled out a large-scale military response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip but threatened on Wednesday to cut off electricity or other vital supplies to the impoverished area if militants keep up attacks.

Pictures of panicked Israeli children and parents running for cover as the school year began in the battered town of Sderot have dominated news in Israel this week. The government has been forced to address growing anger and frustration over the inability of the high-tech military to counter the crude Palestinian weapons.

Israeli media quoted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as saying the need for a large operation in Gaza is approaching. But the Security Cabinet, made up of senior ministers, rejected an all-out offensive to move Israeli communities out of range by taking control of the areas where militants fire rockets.

The Israeli leadership said that for now it ordered an examination of options “to hit the services that supply the Gaza Strip from the state of Israel.” Gaza, which was taken over by Hamas militants in June, remains dependent on Israel for much of its electricity, fuel and water.

Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, said halting vital services to Gaza amounted to illegal collective punishment.

“Deliberately targeting civilians, in Gaza or Sderot, is neither legal nor moral,” she said.

Small-scale strikes to continue
Such a move would be Israel’s first embargo of vital supplies to Gaza, although a private Israel company has briefly cut off fuel oil and gasoline over financial disputes.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said his group is “looking with great concern at this serious and dangerous Israeli threat,” which he termed “a new escalation against our people.”

The Security Cabinet also pledged to continue smaller-scale strikes at rocket squads and launchers.

The crisis over the Gaza rocket attacks overshadowed Tony Blair’s first efforts in his new role as representative of the “Quartet” of Middle East mediators.

The former British prime minister, who was meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials, is expected to be in the area for about 10 days before reporting at the end of the month to the Quartet, — the U.S., Russia, the EU and the U.N.

Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who first floated the idea of cutting off fuel and electricity, said the Hamas takeover of Gaza has made it into an “enemy country,” and Israel has no obligation to help. “Imagine if al-Qaida if took over Gaza,” he said. “Would anybody suggest we provide them with infrastructure?”

Experts: No military answer to attacks
About 250 residents of Sderot, located just outside the Gaza-Israel border fence, demonstrated across from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office during the meeting of the Security Cabinet, charging that the government has abandoned them. “Olmert, resign!” they chanted, clamoring for military action.

But Israel’s options are problematic.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has mounted broad operations several times in the past, with casualties on both sides, but the rocket attacks always resumed after a pullout.

Cutting off vital supplies could cause widespread suffering and would likely bring harsh international condemnation and increase local support for Hamas.

Israel continued what the military called “routine” operations Wednesday. Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into northern Gaza, and the forces brought 11 launchers out of the area, the military said.

Israeli experts said Wednesday that short of recapturing all of the Gaza Strip, there is no military solution to the rocket fire. Shlomo Brom, a retired general, said it’s impossible to build a high-tech system to target a rocket before it is fired. “There is no such animal,” he told The Associated Press.

Barak said this week that a costly system to intercept the rockets is at least 2½ years away from being operational.

Peace negotiations planned
Ex-Gen. Giora Eiland agreed that only a full reoccupation of Gaza could stop the rocket attacks by military means. Eiland, who served as head of Israel’s National Security Council, said Israel must make it worthwhile for the Hamas leadership to stop the barrages by engaging them politically. “Now there is a total boycott of Hamas,” he said, “so they have nothing to lose.”

The Blair visit is part of a new international diplomatic push.

Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plan to meet in the coming days before a visit to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sept. 18, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Rice is trying to push the sides into agreeing on an outline for a future peace agreement ahead of a U.S.-sponsored conference in November.