JERUSALEM -- Israel's Supreme Court rejected yesterday an appeal to block Israel from sharply reducing supplies of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government had argued that the fuel it allowed through met the basic humanitarian needs of Gaza's population while exacting a widely felt price among ordinary Gazans for the continual firing of rockets and mortars into Israel by Palestinian militants.
Israel hopes that such a policy will create popular pressure to force the Hamas rulers of Gaza and other militant groups to stop the rocket fire.
A group of 10 human rights groups had petitioned the court to prevent the fuel cuts, arguing that Israel had a legal obligation under international law to supply the citizens of Gaza. They contended that the cuts "deliberately violate the rights of civilians in Gaza" and constitute "collective punishment" in violation of international law by "deliberately targeting civilians."
But the court's president, Dorit Beinisch, said in a ruling that "the Gaza Strip is controlled by a murderous terrorist group that operates incessantly to strike the state of Israel and its citizens, and violates every precept of international law with its violent actions."
She described Israel as a state of law that sometimes harms civilians accidentally. "In the case of the attacks against Israel, the damage is not accidental, but rather a result of deliberate and frequent assaults on civilian populations which are aimed at harming innocent civilians," she said. "This is the difference between Israel - a democracy fighting for its life within the confines of the law - and the terrorist organizations trying to destroy it."
The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel called the decision "a dangerous legal precedent that allows Israel to continue to violate the rights of Gaza residents and deprive them of basic humanitarian needs in violation of international law."
Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli advocacy group Gisha, one of the petitioners, said: "The court ruling relies on unsubstantiated declarations by the military and ignores indisputable and well-documented evidence of harm to civilians caused by the fuel and electricity cuts - with no legally valid justification."
The petitioning groups argued that the cuts endanger hospital and medical care, water supplies and sewage treatment plants.
The court ruling allows the state to order a reduction in the electricity sold directly to Gaza by Israel's electric company; to cut the amount of industrial diesel to run Gaza's only power plant to 2.2 million liters a week; to cut supplies of gasoline to Gaza to 75,400 liters a week, compared with 400,000 liters a week that were delivered in October; and to cut supplies of diesel fuel to 800,000 liters a week, compared with 1.4 million liters in October.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Jan. 21 that as far as he was concerned, Gazans without gasoline for their cars could walk.
Many have been doing so, but into Egypt, through a border breached a week ago by Hamas. In Cairo yesterday, the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, repeated his rejection of negotiations with Hamas to work out a new border regime after talks with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who has urged Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement to stop fighting.
Abbas wants his Presidential Guard to control the border, as it did before Hamas took over Gaza in June, but Hamas wants a role. The Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal will come to Cairo for talks today. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, said Abbas "is challenging Palestinian public opinion and turning his back on the pain and suffering of the people of the Gaza Strip."
Egypt, meanwhile, continued to try to seal the border and find any Palestinians who have moved farther inside than the border town of Rafah; the semiofficial Egyptian daily Al Ahram reported that Egypt had foiled attacks against Israel by capturing at least five men with suicide belts and arms who had entered Egypt from Gaza. The newspaper said Egypt intended to erect an electronic border barrier to replace the one Israel built and Hamas destroyed.
Egypt appears to favor reopening an orderly border crossing at Rafah for travelers, which it shut in June when Hamas took Gaza.