Israel Puts Squeeze on Gaza Strip; Cuts Fuel Shipments in 'Self-Defense' Move

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Byline: Joshua Mitnick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

TEL AVIV - Israel began scaling back fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip and closed a key crossing for humanitarian provisions - sanctions seen by observers as a last-ditch attempt to squeeze the economy of the coastal strip before a more aggressive military offensive is ordered.

Israeli defense officials said they plan to cut Gaza's gasoline shipments by as much as 11 percent, part of the implementation of a decision last month to declare Gaza an enemy entity. The step is being taken in retaliation for continuing rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

"The purpose is to be able to exercise Israel's right of self-defense," said a government spokesman who declined to be identified, "and to send a firm message to those wishing to attack us that we will not tolerate these attacks, and we will take necessary means to defend [our] citizens."

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz will hold deliberations today on how to defend the decision in Israel's Supreme Court, where human rights groups are expected to charge that the move violates international law.

Palestinians and Israeli left-wingers have denounced the sanctions as collective punishment of a civilian population that is not involved in the rocket attacks.

Sources at the Israeli Electric Corp. said they have received no instructions yet from the Israeli defense establishment about cutting power supplies to Gaza. But a Palestinian fuel official said supplies were already been reduced by 30 percent.

"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.

Speaking to the Associated Press, he said, "The hospitals, water pumping station and sewage will now be affected by the lack of fuel."

Israel's government is under increasing pressure to silence the Gaza rocket launchers, and cutting off fuel and electricity is seen as a way to show firmness against the Palestinians.

It is considered unlikely that Israel will order an all-out offensive in Gaza before a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference scheduled for next month in Annapolis.

Though Israeli spokesmen say it is not in the country's interest to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the army closed the Sufa crossing, used to allow dozens of supply shipments into Gaza per day. …