Gaza Gripped by Cold and Darkness After Israel Blocks Delivery of Fuel

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 21, 2008

JERUSALEM, Jan. 20 -- Gaza's only power plant ceased operating in the Gaza Strip on Sunday night, plunging much of the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians into darkness and winter cold. Palestinian officials said a three-day-old Israeli blockade had exhausted the fuel needed to run the plant.

Israeli officials halted the delivery of food, fuel and other goods into Gaza on Friday in response to days of increased rocket fire from the territory into Israel. On Sunday, Israel accused the Palestinians of exaggerating the impact of the blockade.

Hamas, the armed Islamic movement that controls the Gaza Strip, said hospitals were operating on generators, endangering the steady power supply needed for ventilators, incubators and operating rooms. In intensive-care units, most patients "are in danger of losing their lives," given the scarcity of fuel and spare parts for the generators, said Bassem Naim, health minister for the Hamas government in Gaza.

Hospitals were also forced to leave wards unheated, Naim said. "This is collective punishment of all the people, including patients," he said.

The lights went out in Gaza about 8 p.m., when Palestinian officials shut down the second of the plant's two turbines. European Union officials confirmed that the plant had run out of fuel, news agencies reported.

Lines formed at bakeries as Gaza's residents stocked up on food and shortages grew.

Israel had limited supplies moving into the Palestinian territory since Hamas seized control in June. Hamas routed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, leaving Fatah to govern only the West Bank.

Israeli officials closed checkpoints into Gaza on Friday, halting shipments into the territory, after four days in which Palestinian fighters fired more than 150 rockets from Gaza into Israel. No Israelis have died in the recent rocket attacks, but a sniper killed an Ecuadoran farm worker in fields near Gaza.

Israel preceded the closing of Gaza with intensified airstrikes and ground raids targeting gunmen in the territory. The Israeli attacks have killed more than 30 people in Gaza since Tuesday.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Sunday night that Hamas had shut off power to most of Gaza unnecessarily.

"There's a blackout because they want to fabricate a crisis," Mekel said.

Gaza receives about 25 percent of its electricity from its power plant, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. Egypt supplies 5 percent. Five power lines from Israel supply the remaining 70 percent, and those lines were still supplying power to Gaza despite the blockade, Mekel said.

In Gaza, an official who oversees the power system said engineers had been forced to shut down power distribution at least temporarily to most of the strip after the power plant stopped operating.

Even before the blockade, electricity supply in Gaza ran 30 percent below demand, said the official, Fawzi Hassona, director general for planning in the Palestinian electrical system. Damage to one of the five Israeli lines had further reduced supply. Now, with the power plant off-line, Gaza has only about half of the electricity it needs, Hassona said.

Engineers must reconfigure distribution to account for the shortage brought on by the loss of the power plant before they can bring the system back on-line, Hassona said.

Meanwhile, Mekel noted "a very significant reduction" in the number of rockets fired from Gaza since Friday. About four have fallen in the past two days, down from roughly 50 a day earlier in the week, he said.

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