JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli leaders decided on Wednesday against a broad offensive in Gaza to curb cross-border rocket attacks but did not rule out cutting off Israeli-supplied power to the Palestinian territory, government officials said.
Palestinian militants regularly fire short-range rockets into Israel from Gaza. An explosion near a kindergarten in the Israeli town of Sderot this week rekindled calls for reprisals.
No one was killed in the attack but television footage of traumatized children and parents struck a nerve in Israel and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened his security cabinet to consider stronger military action to try to stop the salvoes.
A government official said after the security session that Defence Minister Ehud Barak recommended “pinpointed” attacks against militants rather than embarking on a large-scale invasion of Gaza, controlled since June by Hamas Islamists.
A massive Israeli offensive in congested Gaza could cause heavy Israeli and Palestinian casualties and complicate plans for a U.S.-proposed Middle East peace conference expected in November, some security cabinet members had cautioned.
Olmert’s office said in a statement Israeli security forces, which regularly mount raids and air strikes against Gazan militants, would continue with “intensive military operations”.
Israel is also examining the legal implications of shutting down utilities it supplies to the impoverished territory and Olmert’s office said the government was drawing up a plan to “disrupt services” supplied by Israel to Gaza.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a close Olmert confidant, has called for periodic power cuts as punishment for rockets fired.
“We have decided we will take specific steps to defend our people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Gaza’s population uses about 200 megawatts of electricity, out of which 120 are provided directly from Israeli power lines, 17 are delivered from Egypt and 65 are produced at a plant in Gaza.
Asked about the rocket attacks, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel could “send a message to Hamas” -- the Islamist group which seized control of Gaza from secular rivals Fatah in June -- without provoking a humanitarian crisis.
The threat drew a protest from human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
“Cutting off the supply of basic necessities such as water and electricity -- which Gazans cannot obtain from elsewhere because of the blockades imposed by Israel -- would constitute collective punishment of Gaza’s population in violation of international humanitarian law, which prohibits all forms of collective punishment,” the London-based group said.
Militants in the Gaza Strip, home to some 1.5 million Palestinians, say they have a right to fire rockets as part of their resistance to Israeli occupation.
Israel pulled settlers and troops out of the territory in 2005 in a withdrawal that Palestinians do not consider an end to occupation because Israeli authorities still control Gaza’s borders, its air space and coastal waters.
Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem