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500,000 in Gaza face power shortages

Funds for fuel cut as part of steps against Hamas

A fast-food store in Gaza City stayed open with the help of gas-powered lamps yesterday. A fast-food store in Gaza City stayed open with the help of gas-powered lamps yesterday. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

JERUSALEM -- Tens of thousands of Gaza Strip residents were without electricity yesterday after the European Union stopped paying to supply fuel to a Gaza power station serving more than a fourth of the coastal enclave.

It was not clear whether the European aid, cut off to deny money to the radical Hamas movement, would be resumed or how long power outages in central Gaza would last. A din of private generators dominated Gaza City's main market areas as merchants and residents sought to keep their lights on.

The blackouts, which began Friday night and grew to affect more than 500,000 residents yesterday, spelled fresh anxiety for Gazans who have felt increasingly cut off since Hamas forcibly took control of the impoverished strip in June by routing the rival Fatah movement.

Israel has closed its borders with Gaza to shipments of all but humanitarian goods and has joined the United States and Europe in refusing contact with Hamas.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said the fuel shipments, initially halted Thursday on security grounds, were to have resumed yesterday.

But European officials refused to lift the cutoff after learning Hamas planned to impose a tax on electricity produced by the Gaza power plant, said Alix de Mauny, spokeswoman for the commission in Jerusalem. Resuming fuel payments could, in effect, help Hamas raise money by paying for the production of taxable electricity, she said.

The European Union classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization and has funneled nearly $2.5 billion in assistance to the Palestinians this year through a special mechanism designed to skirt the Islamist group. Payments for the Gaza power station's fuel have totaled more than $70 million.

"We want to be sure that the money being given is fulfilling its purpose," de Mauny said.

The EU will resume paying the Israeli fuel supplier if the alliance is convinced Hamas will not tax the electricity bills of Gaza residents, de Mauny said.

"As soon as we get assurance, we will resume payment within hours," she said. "The ball is very much in Hamas's court right now."

Gaza's 1.4 million residents receive electricity from three sources: Israel, Egypt, and what is produced by the plant in the central part of the coastal strip.

On Friday, the company that runs the Gaza plant shut off three of its four generators, citing fuel shortages after Israel stopped shipments last week. The plant halted fully yesterday when the EU notified Dor Alon, the Israeli fuel supplier, that it would not pay for a planned shipment.

Hamas traded accusations with Fatah leaders in the West Bank over who was to blame. Fatah, whose rule is now limited to the West Bank under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Hamas was diverting electricity revenues to its own coffers. Hamas denied that and accused Fatah of orchestrating the fuel cutoff as a way to pressure the group by further squeezing Gazans.

Hamas's military triumph has left Palestinians ruled by competing authorities in Gaza and the West Bank, where Abbas named a caretaker government of technocrats led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The recent power outages revived memories of severe rationing in Gaza a year ago when Israeli aircraft bombed the same generating plant during the incursion that followed the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit in June 2006.

Mohammed abu Ramadan, a 65-year-old supermarket owner, said the store coolers have stopped working because he cannot afford a generator.

"It's a miserable life; we have enough suffering," he said.

In other developments, Israeli forces killed six Hamas militants in the central Gaza Strip late yesterday. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the men, who were traveling together in a car when attacked by ground forces, had fired mortars into southern Israel earlier.