JERUSALEM Israel's top court has upheld a government decision to reduce the Gaza Strip's fuel imports, but postponed planned electricity cuts to the Hamas-ruled territory, Israeli officials said on Friday.
Israel began reducing the amount of fuel oil, diesel and petrol allowed into Gaza last month as part of economic sanctions ordered in response to Palestinian rocket salvoes. The government said it would also begin cutting power on December 2.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Western leaders warned Israel against imposing illegal "collective punishment" on Gaza's 1.5 million largely aid-dependent residents. Human rights groups appealed to Israel's High Court to intervene.
The court, ruling late on Thursday, found in favour of the government's argument that fuel supplies for vital activities such as running Gaza's sole power plant would be maintained.
"We are convinced that, for now, there is no need to issue a stay ... especially as the (government) respondents undertook from the outset to ensure that the (fuel) reductions do not cause humanitarian harm," the panel of three justices wrote.
But the court demanded that the government explain further its plan to cut electricity supplies to Gaza, extending deliberations on those sanctions by at least 19 days.
Israel had planned to begin power cuts on Sunday. But senior Defense Ministry official Shlomo Dror told Reuters the measure would be postponed "until the High Court has its final say".
The Israeli sanctions have coincided with efforts by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas to revive peace talks at this week's international conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but continues to control all its imports. Cutting utilities is preferable to mounting a bloody invasion to stop Palestinian militants firing makeshift short-range rockets, Israel says.
Islamist Hamas, which routed Abbas's forces in Gaza in June and is shunned by the West for refusing to recognize the Jewish state, has condemned the sanctions as "blackmail" and hinted that Gaza's privations could stoke Israeli-Palestinian violence.
"When these Palestinian pledges (by Abbas at Annapolis) come at the same time as the Israeli court's decision to tighten the siege on the Palestinian people ... it is a very dangerous coincidence," Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas prime minister in the former government dissolved by Abbas, told reporters in Gaza.
Another Hamas leader, Mushir al-Masri, told a later rally: "Even if they impose the siege for years, even if they kill us all, we will never recognize Israel."
Dror said that Israel has reduced fuels supplied to Gaza by around 13 percent, depending on type. Palestinian officials disputed this, reporting fuel cuts of 40 percent to 50 percent.
Some of the discrepancy may have been caused by logistical challenges in Israel supplying fuel to Gaza while shunning its Hamas rulers. Gazan contractors pay for the fuel through offices in the West Bank, where Abbas runs a separate administration under foreign pressure to avoid financial dealings with Hamas.
According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Gaza's population uses about 200 megawatts of electricity, of which 120 are provided directly from Israeli power lines, 17 are delivered from Egypt, and 65 are produced at the local Palestinian plant.
Israel's High Court said in its ruling that it sought clarification on how, "given conditions in the Gaza Strip, it is possible to carry out the proposed (power) reductions without harming the population's vital humanitarian needs".
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Dominic Evans)