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Damage to power plant to have lingering impact for Gaza residents

NUSIRAT, Gaza Strip—Sami al-Abadiah looked up at the still-smoldering wreckage of the Gaza Strip's only power plant and wondered what the Israelis were thinking Wednesday when they hit a civilian site that provides electricity to 700,000 Palestinians.

Abadiah, one of the plant's engineers, said he sympathized with Israel's hopes of finding a soldier taken captive by militants on Sunday. But he said Thursday that he was baffled by what Israel hoped to accomplish by crippling a plant that may take six months or more to repair.

"They want their soldier back and that's their right," said Abadiah. "But we can do nothing for them. They are making all the people suffer."

The power plant does more than provide energy to more than half of the Gaza Strip's 1.3 million residents. It also fuels critical water and sewage pumps as Gaza heads into another scorching Mediterranean coast summer.

"With no water and also considering the weather, it will be a life-threatening situation rather quickly," said Christer Nordahl, deputy director of the United Nations refugee office in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli jets hit the power plant, along with two key bridges, early Wednesday morning as the precursor to a slowly building invasion of the Gaza Strip intended to secure the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a French-Israeli soldier who was captured by Palestinian militants Sunday in a cross-border raid.

Israeli leaders said the strikes were designed to prevent the militants holding Shalit in southern Gaza from spiriting their hostage out of the area. "The idea was to make it more difficult to move the hostage from place to place," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry. "Darkness helps."

But the attack has been condemned by human rights groups, United Nations officials and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose office called the strike "barbaric."

Abadiah said it could take at least six months and $11 million dollars to rebuild the power plant. And that's if Israel allows the replacement equipment into Gaza through its border crossings.

The impact of the strike is clear in Gaza City: More than half of the 600,000 residents are without water, and at least two-thirds lack power.

Maged Abu Ramadan, the city's mayor, said he's relying on generators to keep some power flowing. But because Israel has cut off the Gaza Strip, there's only enough fuel to run the generators for another two or three days.

After that, Ramadan warned, the streets could begin filling with raw sewage and residents may have only dangerously dirty water to drink.

One short-term solution would be for Israel to allow more fuel into Gaza and increase the amount of electricity flowing to Gaza from its Ashkelon power station.

But Israeli officials said they're more concerned with getting their soldier back than helping the Palestinians.

"Our immediate goal is to secure the release of Corporal Shalit," said Israel's Regev. "We will do what we can to avert a humanitarian crisis."

In the meantime, Gaza residents are doing without.

"They cut the electricity because they want to create chaos among us, but this is not going to happen," said Naima Omar Shehadeh as she stood outside her home near Gaza City. "We are going to stand firm. They can cut electricity. They can take the food. But we are going to stand firm."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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