Israel's attorney general has prohibited the government from cutting electricity supplies to the Gaza Strip, arguing that there needs to be a full evaluation of the humanitarian consequences first.
The ruling by Attorney General Menahem Mazuz came late on Monday after 10 human rights groups petitioned Israel's supreme court to stop the cutbacks, arguing that they amounted to collective punishment. Israel had announced Sunday that it was cutting back fuel supplies and electricity to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory.
Israel's Justice Ministry said in a statement on Monday that "further consideration needs to be given to cutting off electricity because of the humanitarian implications on the civilian population." The supreme court has given the government until Friday to justify the economic sanctions it is seeking to impose on the Palestinian territory.
Israel began cutting fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip on Sunday, just weeks after it declared the coastal strip a "hostile entity" in response to the frequent rocket attacks on southern Israel. On Monday a Palestinian militant, a civilian and an Israeli soldier were killed during a brief incursion by Israeli forces into the Gaza Strip.
The two Palestinian territories have been split between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Fatah-dominated West Bank after the Islamist group wrested control of the coastal strip during a violent conflict with the secular Fatah security forces in June. The economic situation in the Gaza Strip has steadily deteriorated ever since. The territory's unemployment rate has skyrocketed and 75 percent of its residents are dependent on welfare for survival.
The European Union warned Israel against punishing the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there. The bloc's commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said she was "very concerned," during a visit to Jerusalem on Monday. The commissioner said that while she recognized the "distress" caused by the Palestinian rocket fire, she said "I think collective punishment is never the answer." And she told Israeli officials: "We dont want the population to suffer." Ferrero-Waldner also met with the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank, who told her that Israel's measures were "hurting our people in the Gaza Strip."
United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon called the "punitive measures" against the Gaza Strip "unacceptable," and Russia's Foreign Ministry condemned the "isolation" of the Palestinian territory.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev rejected the criticism, saying Israel was continuing to supply humanitarian support to the people of Gaza. "We do not see the Palestinian people as our enemy," he told Agence France Presse, but he said that Israel also had a right to defend itself.
Palestinians rely on Israel for all of their fuel and more than half of their electricity. Palestinian officials said on Sunday that deliveries of fuel oil for Gaza's only power station, as well as diesel and petrol, were down from a quarter to a half and that fuel supplies in general were down by 30 percent, though Israeli official said the supplies were only reduced by between 5 and 11 percent.
The moves against Hamas-controlled Gaza came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert prepares for negotiations on formal statehood with the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas next month. Olmert, who announced on Monday that he has prostate cancer, has been weakened by last year's failed war in Lebanon and he now faces right-wing opposition within his cabinet over his intention to enter final-status talks with the Palestinians following the US-sponsored summit later this year.