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A reported proposal by Israeli government officials to cut the Gaza Strip’s electricity supply in retaliation for Palestinian militant groups’ rocket attacks on Israel would constitute unlawful collective punishment of Gaza's civilian population, Human Rights Watch said today.

A report on Wednesday in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz said top Israeli government officials discussed plans to cut electricity to the Gaza Strip if Palestinian militant groups continue to fire Qassam rockets into Israel.

Human Rights Watch condemns the use of Qassam rockets, which are indiscriminate weapons often fired into Israeli civilian areas in violation of international humanitarian law, and urges militant groups to stop their attacks. But, in turn, any measures that Israel takes to protect its citizens from these attacks must be consistent with its obligations under international humanitarian law.

Cutting electricity to the entire population of Gaza violates a basic principle of international humanitarian law, which restricts a government that has effective control over a territory from attacking or withholding objects essential to the survival of the civilian population. Such an act would also violate Israel's duty as an occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the occupied population.

The online edition of Israel’s largest-circulation daily, Yediot Ahronot, reported that senior army officers in Israel’s Southern Command, responsible for air and land operations in and around northern Gaza, expressed strong opposition to the plan while meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to discuss possible responses to the Qassam rockets.

"Cutting the electricity supply of an already impoverished population would have disastrous humanitarian consequences," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "A power cut would create severe hardships by interrupting government services, forcing businesses and factories to close, causing food and medicine to spoil, and disrupting the work of hospitals."

Israel withdrew its military forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in August and September. Nonetheless, Israel continues to hold responsibility for ensuring the well-being of Gaza's population for as long as, and to the extent that, it retains effective control over the area. Israel still exercises full control over Gaza's airspace, sea space and land borders with Israel as well as its electricity, water, sewage and telecommunications networks and population registry. Under the disengagement plan, Israel reserves the right to reenter Gaza militarily at any time.

Israel has stated that it may take such measures to punish Gaza's civilian population for support of the militant groups that carry out rocket and suicide bombing attacks. Ha'aretz reported that during a government debate on cutting electricity to Gaza, "the prevailing view was that Palestinian public opinion could pressure the terrorist organizations to restrain their attacks if many Palestinians came to feel that the price they were paying for such attacks was too high.”

Cutting electricity to Gaza would amount to collective punishment, which is expressly forbidden under international humanitarian law. According to this principle, a person cannot be punished for a crime that they have not personally committed. The International Committee of the Red Cross has clarified in its authoritative commentary of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that "[t]he concept of collective punishment must be understood in the broadest sense: it covers not only legal sentences but sanctions and harassment of any sort..."

"It’s disturbing that the Israeli government would seriously consider such a blatant disregard of its legal obligations, given the cruel consequences of such a measure on Palestinian civilians," said Whitson.

This is not the first time since its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that Israel has sought to punish Gaza's population collectively for the actions of militant groups. For example, from September 24 to November 12, Israel barred all Palestinian workers from Gaza from entering Israel following Palestinian rocket attacks that injured six Israelis. In December, Israel barred Palestinian workers in Gaza (and the West Bank) from entering Israel for six days after a Palestinian suicide bomber from the northern West Bank killed five Israelis in Netanya.

During these periods, more than 5,000 Palestinian workers with valid permits to enter Israel were unable to reach their jobs. The impact of lost days of work is particularly serious in Gaza, where the poverty rate continues to climb. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 68 per cent of the population in Gaza lives below the poverty line.

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