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(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat appealed for international intervention and called the Israeli decision to cut off electricity to Gaza after each Kassam rocket "particularly provocative given that Palestinians and Israelis are meeting to negotiate an agreement on the core issues for ending the conflict between them."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak's approval earlier Thursday of an IDF plan to impose sanctions on the Gaza Strip in wake of the escalation in Kassam rocket attacks was the first step, defense officials told The Jerusalem Post, towards a "complete disengagement" including the gradual reduction in Palestinian dependency on Israel for gas and electricity.
During his weekly security meeting on Thursday Barak approved the plan that had been formulated by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yosef Mishlav in line with the recent cabinet decision that defined Gaza as a "hostile entity."
According to the plan, one of the power lines connecting Israel and Gaza will be shut down at first for 15 minutes after a rocket attack, gradually increasing the cutoff length if the barrages continue, up to a two-hour limit. In addition, Israel will begin reducing the amount of gasoline it allows into the Gaza Strip.
Defense officials stressed that the fairly-limited sanctions were not capable of creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and were being imposed with the eventual goal - of the defense establishment - to completely cut off Palestinian dependency on Israel. The cuts to electricity will not affect Gaza-based hospitals, defense officials said.
Palestinians and human rights groups denounced the measure as collective punishment. One of the groups, Gisha, issued a statement warning, "Playing with electricity is playing with fire," adding, "Even a brief interruption in electricity threatens the safety and well-being of Gaza residents."
Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel had no choice but to take punitive measures. "Should we tell them to continue firing rockets at the same power station that provides them with electricity and continue to bomb the water system that provides them with water?" he asked.
Defense officials stressed that the cuts to electricity and gas were not being taken to "punish" the Palestinians but to instead gradually begin the final disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which was started in 2005 when Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Palestinian territory.
This plan has was recently raised by outgoing Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky during a series of meetings within the defense establishment.
According to the proposal, which officials stressed was in its early stages, Israel would completely disconnect from Gaza by closing off the Erez, Karni, Sufa and Kerem Shalom crossings and instead direct humanitarian organizations to work with Egypt.
A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said that while in the long run Israel hoped to reach a situation where Israel could completely cut itself off from Gaza, "we are not at that stage yet."
The official said that such a decision would need to come to the security cabinet and the government, something that has not yet happened. According to the official, the decision to cut back on electric and gas supplies was part of September's cabinet decision that declared the Gaza Strip "hostile territory."
Anticipating a barrage of criticism following the decision to scale back the volume of electricity and gasoline that will be provided to Gaza, the Foreign Ministry already on Wednesday sent out background information and talking points to Israel's representations abroad explaining that the move was a "non- violent response to continued attacks."
The material emphasizes that the actions are a response to the unrelenting Kassam attacks that continued even after Israel fully withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The material stresses that the actions are within the realms of international law, and that Israel's first responsibility is to protect its citizens.
Israel's ambassadors and spokesmen are expected to say that Hamas is engaged in war crimes by targeting innocent civilians, and that Israel's steps are not collective punishment but rather the justified response to attacks on Israeli citizens.
Meanwhile in violence on Thursday, IDF troops shot and killed four armed Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Two Hamas operatives were killed during clashes with an IDF reserve unit in southern Gaza and large amounts of weaponry, including an RPG and a grenade, were found on their bodies. The other two, affiliated with Islamic Jihad, were killed after they were spotted laying roadside bombs along the Gaza security fence.