GAZA CITY — A 10-year blockade and three wars have hardened the people of the Gaza Strip, but now they face a new challenge: a lone power station without fuel.
The problem means long hours without electricity for the 2 million Palestinians living in the coastal enclave. And the situation is about to get worse as the Middle East heads toward a typical arid summer and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The solution could be simple: Provide Gazans with fuel for their single power plant. But the problem is caught in the middle of a power struggle between the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the militant rulers of the Gaza Strip.
Until now, the Palestinian Authority received fuel from Israel and sold it to the power station in Gaza, which is under Hamas’s authority. The Palestinian Authority even reduced the taxes. But financial difficulties meant other countries occasionally had to step in to cover the cost. In January, after public unrest over power cuts, Qatar and Turkey donated three month’s worth of fuel to Gaza.
But that arrangement has ended, and the Palestinian Authority has said that as long as Hamas remains in charge in Gaza, it should be responsible for paying the electricity bill — at the full cost.
The political fighting between the two Palestinian factions has left Gazans to survive with between four and six hours of electricity a day.
“I live on the sixth floor, and electricity is important for me not only inside my apartment but also outside, to operate the elevator,” said Maisa al-Masri, a 38-year-old resident of the strip. She is a mother of five and has severe back problems.
“I have to walk up and down the stairs with my little baby when I come back from work,” she said. “Since 2006 we are suffering, and Palestinian leadership in Gaza and the West Bank don’t care about us, only about their own interests.”
Hamas has governed Gaza since it violently seized power from its rival Palestinian faction Fatah in 2007. Since then, relations between Gaza and the West Bank, which is run by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, have been tense.
Israel also views Hamas’s takeover of Gaza as hostile and has kept in place a land and sea blockade of the strip, controlling goods and people going in and out. Hamas, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, also has strained relations with the current Egyptian administration, which has kept its crossing with Gaza mostly closed in recent years.
Hamas has asked the Palestinian Authority to help by at least reducing the taxes it charges for the industrial diesel that fuels the plant. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, last week refused to cut or remove the tax unless Hamas relinquishes power to the Palestinian Authority.
“Hamas says it does not collect enough from the electricity bills because people in Gaza are poor. They believe the Palestinian Authority should pay part or most of the cost,” said Ghassan Khatib, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University near the West Bank town of Ramallah. “The PA says that does not make sense, that Hamas is governing Gaza while the PA is paying for Gaza.”
The outcome of the standoff, Khatib said, is “increasing of the suffering of the people in Gaza. Hamas will never give up the leadership and the people will suffer more.”
Fathi Sheikh Khalil, head of Hamas’s energy authority in Gaza, said fuel taxes charged by the PA are untenable. The taxes more than double the cost of operating the plant’s two turbines, he said.
Sheikh Khalil said the strip is now relying on supplies coming from Israel and Egypt, but it is not enough. Israel supplies about 120 megawatts of electricity and Egypt a further 20 to 30 megawatts. But Gaza needs an estimated 400 megawatts to sustain itself, according to Gaza’s energy authority. Add to that the instability in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which often causes the supply line from there to stop functioning.
“The electricity cuts will also affect municipal services such as pumping water to people’s homes and wastewater treatment,” Sheikh Khalil said.
Gaza’s hospitals have also warned that they will not be able to operate for much longer.
Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Israeli military authority responsible for Gaza, sent a letter earlier this month to international aid organizations warning that electricity shortages combined with water purification problems could soon create an even worse humanitarian crisis in the enclave.
In the meantime, Gazans have tried to find alternatives. In the beginning, they relied on small, fuel-operated generators. Then they turned to rechargeable batteries, called inverters, for lighting.
Now demand for solar energy systems is growing, said Ali Hussein, an engineer and owner of a company involved in solar energy.
But most Gazans can’t afford even the cheapest system, which sells for about $1,350.
“I am following with great concern the tense situation in Gaza, where a new energy crisis is now unfolding,” Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said in a statement Wednesday.
“The authorities in Gaza must ensure that collection rates are improved and that revenue collected in Gaza is returned to the legitimate Palestinian authorities in order to keep fuel and electricity supply flowing,” he said.
He also called on Israel to ease the entry of materials for repairs and maintenance of the grid and power plant and for Egypt to repair and upgrade its power lines to Gaza.
“Palestinians in Gaza, who live in a protracted humanitarian crisis, can no longer be held hostage by disagreements, divisions and closures,” he said.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem.