The fuel tanks at Gaza’s only power plant came under attack early Tuesday.

Thick black smoke billowed over Gaza City as the fire raged at the power plant, which is the enclave’s second-largest source of electricity and the only provider inside the territory for its 1.8 million citizens.

Fathy Sheikh Halil, who is the director of the Gaza Electricity Station Company, said the damage would take months to repair.

Jamal Dersawi, the plant’s general manager, confirmed that the major fuel storage tanks supplying the facility took a hit before dawn. There was no immediate comment from Israel’s military about the attack.

Dersawi said that as a result the Gaza Strip — already suffering from rolling blackouts and very limited electricity — will experience “massive” power shortages.

“There is a major disaster that has now started across Gaza,” he said. “The power station has stopped so production has stopped.”

Dersawi said many of the plant’s employees were fearful of remaining at the site due to the potential for further attacks.

Gaza gets most of its electricity via power lines from Israel. However, several of those have been damaged since the war between Israel and the Palestinian militants began more than three weeks ago. The plant provides about one-third of Gaza’s power.

It also came under attack in June 2006, when Israeli aircraft knocked out its transformers.

Dersawi said that since the facility provides power to key infrastructure, including water sanitation facilities, Tuesday’s attack will have a devastating impact on the citizens of Gaza.

“It will affect the 1.8 million people from Rafah to Beit Hanoun,” he said.

NBC News’ Wajjeh Abu Zarifa and James Novogrod and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Wall Street Journal

Nicholas Casey in Gaza City and
Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv

Israeli forces pounded Hamas symbols of control and Gaza’s only power plant in one of the heaviest bombardments in the three-week conflict, trying to raise pressure on the Islamist group to accept Israel’s terms for a cease-fire.

A strike early Tuesday engulfed the power plant in flames, forcing it to shut down and leaving many of the Palestinian territory’s 1.8 million people without electricity. To Gazans, the attack on such a vital lifeline seemed aimed at weakening Palestinian support for the extended conflict both sides say they are ready to fight.

“With the power station gone, all of Gaza is going to collapse,” said Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al Azhar University. “They’re trying to put direct pressure on the Palestinians.” ………

The attack on Gaza’s 50-megawatt power plant had an immediate effect on hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Without air conditioning, they sweltered in the summer heat. They lost touch with relatives as mobile phones ran low on battery power and couldn’t be charged. As night fell, many homes were dark.

A relatively small portion of Gazans have generators, “but the question is when does the fuel run out,” said Stu Willcuts, the mission director for Mercy Corps, an agency distributing meals and sanitation kits for Gaza’s displaced residents.

Nearly all Gaza’s water is brackish and is filtered with electric pumps to make it drinkable. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency is distributing bottled water to more than 200,000 Gazans displaced by the fighting, and Mercy Corps is trying to rent water delivery trucks to assist.

The intensity and scope of the military operation is similar to Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009 with a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. The fighting damaged Hamas’s forces and rocket arsenals but failed to deter the group from rearming.

Mr. Abusada, the Gaza political scientist, said many of the territory’s civilians felt then, as they do now, that Israel was inflicting deliberate punishment on them to erode Hamas’s popular support. He said the tactic didn’t work then, and won’t now, in large part because Palestinians have no way to protest against Hamas.

“Any Palestinian who speaks out against Hamas will be marked as an Israeli collaborator,” he said. “You can’t expect Palestinians to go out in the street to protest Hamas.”