JERUSALEM (JTA) – Critics may be describing Israel’s controversial policy of cutting fuel supplies to Gaza to deter Palestinian rocket attacks as collective punishment, but government leaders in Jerusalem see it as something else: humane.
In the face of unceasing rocket attacks on Israeli towns, cities and kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip, Israeli leaders approved the new policy to reduce fuel and electricity to the territory as the most humane way of trying to persuade Gaza’s radical Hamas leadership to keep the peace.
Critics at home and abroad accused the government of ulterior motives and blasted the policy as immoral and counterproductive.
They say the policy’s real aims are to prepare the way for a large ground invasion of Gaza to destroy Hamas’ burgeoning military infrastructure, to start a process of separating Gaza from Israel economically and to maintain a wedge between Hamas-dominated Gaza and the Fatah-led West Bank, which is administered by the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli critics warn the policy will rally Gazans around Hamas and lead to more rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorists, not less.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the policy last week after the army’s top brass had urged further sanctions on Gaza following a particularly heavy rocket and mortar attack by Gaza terrorists on Israeli civilian populations nearby.
On Tuesday, Barak appeared to confirm some critics’ suspicions.
“The time is approaching when we’ll have to undertake a broad operation in Gaza,” Barak told Army Radio on Tuesday. “We are not happy to do it, we’re not rushing to do it and we’ll be happy if circumstances succeed in preventing it.”
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai drew up recommendations to impose limits on the supply of fuel, services and goods, and to cut electricity sporadically from the Beit Hanoun area in northern Gaza from where most of the rockets are fired.
Vilnai argues that these steps are in keeping with Israel’s Sept. 19 decision to declare Gaza a hostile entity.
“Because this is an entity that is hostile to us, there is no reason for us to supply them with electricity beyond the minimum needed to avert a crisis,” Vilnai said.
After a daylong debate Monday on legalities, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz approved the new measures but ruled that the move to cut off electricity be deferred until a more detailed plan can demonstrate that no harm would be caused to essential services such as hospitals.
Israel has five electricity lines into Gaza, four of which deliver power to a nearby army base and to hospitals in the Gaza area and cannot be shut down. The fifth line to Beit Hanoun, the source of extensive rocket fire, is where government leaders plan to interrupt power on a random basis for between 15 minutes and an hour at night.
The government already has begun cutting fuel supplies by 5 percent to 11 percent.
Israeli officials argue that it is absurd to supply your enemies with fuel and electricity that they use to fire rockets at your civilians.
Hamas says withholding supplies is a form of collective punishment and a violation of international law. Hamas spokesmen claim they could stop Islamic Jihad militants from firing at Israel, but why should they if this is Israel’s response to their offer of a long-term cease-fire?
On the West Bank, Fatah leaders may secretly be pleased at the pressure Israel is putting on Hamas, Fatah’s rivals, in Gaza.
In public, however, Fatah leaders have been fiercely critical of the new Israeli steps.
In a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas argued that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for Gaza’s estimated 1.5 million Palestinians, not the Hamas usurpers who drove Fatah out in June.
Saeb Erekat, a chief Fatah negotiator with Israel in the run-up to the planned Annapolis peace parley, called the Israeli decision to sever power and fuel supplies “particularly provocative given the fact that Palestinians and Israelis are meeting to negotiate an agreement on the core issues for ending the conflict between them.”
Fatah leaders contend that the tough Israeli measures in Gaza will make it much harder for Abbas to show the necessary flexibility to reach a deal with Israel in Annapolis.
The international community also is taking a strongly critical line. In a tense meeting Monday with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Benito Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union’s commissioner for external affairs, urged Israel to consider the possible humanitarian consequences of its action.
Earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued that although Israel had withdrawn from Gaza, it still is responsible for what goes on there. Cutting off supplies would be “contrary to Israel’s obligations toward the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law,” he declared.
In Israel, several human rights organizations have petitioned the Supreme Court urging its intervention.
The plan also has sparked a lively media debate, most of it critical of the government.
The most scathing comments came from Nahum Barnea, the doyen of Israeli political pundits and recent recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize. On the front page of Monday’s Yediot Achronot, Barnea called the government plan “stupid.”
“Rather than severing Israel from the occupation, at least with regard to Gaza, it reinforces Israel’s image as a cruel occupier,” he wrote. “It is incompatible with the effort to reopen dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and the moderate Arab regimes. The foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, not to speak of Abbas, won’t be able to sit quietly at Annapolis while Barak blacks out Gaza.”
Writing in the left-leaning Ha’aretz, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff claimed that while Israeli defense officials say the tough measures will reduce rocket attacks, they know full well the opposite will occur.
Therefore, they conclude, “the real aim is twofold: to spark a new escalation to justify a major Israeli military operation in Gaza and to prepare the way for clear separation from Gaza, limiting to an absolute minimum Israel’s obligations to the Palestinians there.”
Israeli officials disagree. They say that the new policy does not look for an excuse to invade Gaza but constitutes an attempt to avoid an invasion.
Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer argues that in combating the rockets, Israel had only two choices: cutting the supplies to Gaza or “tomorrow or the next day” sending “three or four divisions into Gaza.”
He added, “And if we do that, won’t innocent people be killed?”
“Maybe this time the people that are responsible for the chaos in Gaza,” Ben Eliezer said, “will start thinking differently.”