hamas gunmen 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Wednesday that it would be illegal for Israel to cut the supply of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip.
Such action would be "contrary to" Israel's "obligation toward the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law," he said.
Earlier Wednesday, the government designated Gaza a "hostile territory," paving the way for such a cutoff.
However, the government made no immediate moves to act on the threat, which is likely to be implemented in stages and/or immediately after another Kassam rocket attack from the Strip.
Halting the flow of those utilities would deal a harsh blow to an area that is almost totally dependent on Israel for basic necessities, said Stuart Shepherd of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
All of Gaza's fuel, including diesel, gasoline and natural gas, comes from Israel, he said.
Around 62.5 percent of Gaza's electricity is provided directly by Israel, Shepherd said. Another 28.6% comes from Gaza's sole power plant, which depends on Israeli fuel. Only 8.8% comes from Egypt, Shepherd added.
Given this high level of dependency on Israel, Ban in New York called on the government to reconsider its decision.
He said in a statement that he understood Israel's security concerns and "deplored" Hamas's "indiscriminate" firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel.
"There are 1.4 million people in Gaza, including the old, the young and the sick, who are already suffering from the impact of prolonged closure. They should not be punished for the unacceptable actions of militants and extremists," Ban said.
He was joined in his condemnation by Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, who called Israel's actions "immoral and contrary to the Geneva Conventions."
"No matter what crimes are being committed - and indiscriminate rocket attacks are a crime under humanitarian law - collective punishment cannot be allowed," said Hobbs.
At the Gaza border, United Nations workers and Israeli security officials struggled to understand what it all meant at the practical level of supplies.
"At the moment we are just taking a step back and waiting to see what will happen," said Kirstei Campbell, Gaza emergency coordinator for the UN's World Food Program.
"There has been a lot of rhetoric today, which could mean a lot of different things," she said.
Any action by Israel to reduce supplies would be doubly hard for a population that was already stretched to the limit by shortages, rising prices and high unemployment, Campbell said.
"We are very concerned about anything that could contribute to the worsening of the economy, which is in tatters," Campell added.
Electricity shortages, which are not uncommon in Gaza, have in the past meant people's refrigerators did not work and that there was no ability to store food, said Campbell.
A decrease in the supply of electricity would also impact water supplies, as many Gazans live in high rise buildings that are dependent for their water on electric pumps.
Hospitals and sewage treatment plants have back up generators, as do people of means, but those generators need fuel to operate, said Shepherd.
None of systems were designed to replace the normal supply channels, he said.
Shepherd said he didn't need to underscore the health and environmental risk if a sewage spill resulted due to lack of electricity for treatment plants.
"Any power outage has huge implications on the population," he said, particularly since there were almost no fuel reserves in Gaza.
Defense officials told The Jerusalem Post that Wednesday's government decision had ended the slim hope that economic activity, which had been severely depressed since Hamas took over the Strip in June, would recover.
Since then, the Rafah pedestrian passage to Egypt has been closed. The main cargo crossing at Karni has also been closed, excepted for occasional provision of wheat. Otherwise, supplies have only entered Gaza through the alternative crossings of Sufa and Kerem Shalom, which have limited capacity. The Erez crossing to the Strip's north has also been open for some pedestrian traffic.
The defense officials said Israel intended to continue to provide basic humanitarian aid to Gaza through Sufa and Kerem Shalom. At least 1.1 million people in Gaza are dependent on those basic food supplies, according to the UN.
The officials said that after yesterday's decision by the government, little was expected to enter Gaza beyond those necessities, in contrast to the expanded movement of the last two months that had allowed for limited commercial activity.
UN officials, who already despaired over the situation in Gaza, told the Post they didn't believe that the latest measures under consideration would have the desired impact on Hamas.
"It is difficult to see how this is in anyone's interest, not Israel's, and not the people in Gaza's. There is already a dire humanitarian situation there and this will only add to the sense of isolation and desperation. We all know that desperation in this situation drives people further toward extremism," said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency.