by Phoebe Greenwood in Tel Aviv | Telegraph.co.uk | November 27, 2011
Israel has warned it might cut all support to the Gaza Strip, including vital water and power supplies, if the Palestinian Authority pursues its path towards reunification with militant group Hamas.
The threats were issued by Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, on Israeli Radio on Saturday in response to a recent meeting between Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Cairo.
Mr Ayalon claimed a deal with the extremist faction would turn the Palestinian Authority into "an authority of terrorism and this would block any hope of reaching any peace agreement with Israel".
Israel currently provides around 60 per cent of Gaza's electricity. The rest is either brought form Egypt or generated by Gaza's own partially destroyed power station, run by the EU. Mekorot, Israel's national water company, provides 5% of its water – a small but important contribution, according to Sari Bashi, who runs legal organisation GISHA supporting freedom of movement for Palestinians. Mr Bashi dismissed Mr Ayalon's comments as "silly and irresponsible".
"I can't imagine Israel cutting off drinking water to civilians as a means of effecting the behaviour of militants. It would also be illegal," she said.
"These policies of collective punishment – responding with anger as opposed to applying policy – have failed over and over again. I would expect the deputy foreign minister to think before he speaks."
Israel officially withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 but maintains full control over its borders, effectively occupying the region. Israel is compelled by international law and its own Supreme Court to safeguard the access of Gaza's population to basic humanitarian needs, including power and water.
Israel threatened to cut Gaza's water and power supply in 2007 when militant group Hamas came to power but issued restrictions on both fuel and electricity instead.
Since these were implemented, Hamas has raised 1 million shekels (more than £170,000) in taxes a week through fuel brought through tunnels from Egypt.
A spokesperson for Hamas dismissed Mr Ayalon's threats as hollow. Ahmed Yusef, adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, insisted that Palestinian reunification is a domestic issue and so nothing to do with Israel.
An official within Israel's foreign ministry claimed Mr Ayalon's comments should be understood in the context of foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman's suggestion that Israel lift its naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, thereby relieving its obligation to the population and enabling it to disengage from the region entirely. "Then they would not be able to kick us in the ass while claiming benefits from us", the official said.
Mr Ayalon's comments came shortly before the Israeli Air Force struck two targets in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip in response to a Kassam rocket fired into southern Israel.
This is the tenth rocket to have been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel this month. Benny Gantz, the IDF chief of staff, warned the Knesset last week that ongoing fire from Gaza would demand a large-scale military operation, which he admitted would be "painful".
Israeli commentators predict such an offensive may take place before the current military leadership in Cairo is ousted and a less sympathetic government led by the Muslim Brotherhood is in power.