GAZA CITY - Israel began cutting vital fuel shipments to the Gaza Strip yesterday, following through on a promise to step up pressure on the territory's Hamas rulers after months of Palestinian rocket attacks.
Dor Alon, the Israeli energy company that sells fuel to Gaza, confirmed it received instructions from the Israeli Defense Ministry to reduce shipments.
Last month the Israeli government declared Gaza a hostile entity, and approved the plan for cutoffs as a response to near-daily rocket attacks by militants. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave the final approval last week.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement yesterday that the Sufa crossing between Gaza and Israel has been closed. That crossing is used for transporting cargo in and out of Gaza. Its closing leaves only a smaller cargo crossing in operation.
Israel says it holds the violent Islamic Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June, responsible for the continued rocket fire. Smaller militant groups have carried out most of the rocket attacks, with Hamas militants firing mortars at border crossings. But Hamas has done nothing to stop the rocket fire.
The fuel cut drew harsh condemnation from Palestinians in Gaza, which relies on Israel for all its fuel and more than half its electricity.
"This is a serious warning to the people of the Gaza Strip. Their lives are now in danger," said Ahmed Ali, deputy director of Gaza's Petroleum Authority, which distributes Israeli fuel shipments to private Palestinian companies. "The hospitals, water pumping station, and sewage will now be affected by the lack of fuel."
Ali said daily fuel shipments yesterday were more than 30 percent below normal. He said Israel delivered 52,835 gallons of diesel fuel, compared to the typical 92,500 gallons on a normal day, and 23,775 gallons of gasoline, instead of the regular supply of 40,000 gallons.
He said Gaza keeps about four days of fuel reserves.
Truck drivers at Gaza's main fuel depot complained that they were unable to fill their tanks yesterday, and some drivers said they were turned away altogether.
Israel has also threatened to reduce electricity supplies to Gaza, but has not done so. The fuel crunch is expected to hit the impoverished territory harder than planned cuts in electricity, because the area already suffers frequent power outages. Fuel from Israel also powers Gaza's only electric plant, which provides a quarter of the territory's electricity.
Israel has severely restricted trade with Gaza, shutting down most of the territory's industry, and conducts frequent air strikes and small ground operations against militants. But the measures have had little effect on the rocket barrages, which have killed 12 people in recent years and disrupted life for Israelis near Gaza.
In what appeared to be an attempt to head off criticism, Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defense minister, insisted the cutoff is not a response to the rocket fire, but the latest step by Israel to "disengage" from Gaza following its withdrawal of all troops and settlers from the area two years ago.
"This is the continuation of our disengagement since the troops pulled out," he told Israel Radio on Saturday, adding it is not connected to Qassam rockets.
Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel will "not allow in any way" a humanitarian crisis to develop in Gaza. "The terrorists are bombarding the crossing points of the fuels, and we do not feel the need to supply the terrorists," she said.
At a taxi depot in downtown Gaza, drivers agreed the cutoff will mean price hikes but could not agree on whom to blame. "Israel wants us to give in. We will not. If the rockets were useless, Israel wouldn't have been that angry," said Mohammed al-Haddad.
But another driver, who would only identify himself as Abu Nidal, blamed the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah. "If they can't manage things, and are only making people suffer, they should both step down," he said.
Despite its conflict with Hamas, the moderate West Bank government of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the latest Israeli measures. "We consider it a threat to the peace process and we have initiated contacts with Israel to stop it," said the Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki.