No electricity brings Gaza to the boil

June 12, 2017
Sarah Benton

Articles from Ma’an and Amos Harel, Haaretz premium

June 4, 2017: sheep graze near a lake of sewage close to the stalled Gaza power plant in the central Gaza Strip. Photo by Adel Hana/AP

Gaza braces itself for ‘collapse’ after Israel approves reduction of electricity supply

By Ma’an news
June 12, 2017

BETHLEHEM — The Israeli security cabinet has approved a 40 percent reduction in Israel’s electricity supply to the besieged Gaza Strip, where Palestinians are already coping with a crippling power crisis and daily, hours-long blackouts, according Israeli media reports.

While Gaza’s electricity company said it had not received an official order regarding the impending power cut, it called upon Palestinians in Gaza to prepare for the worst, while human rights groups urged Israel to reconsider the move — expected to have immediate and disastrous effects on the medical sector in particular.

The approval came after Israeli authorities announced plans to make the cuts last month, upon request of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in occupied West Bank, which foots Gaza’s monthly electricity bill from Israel, by subtracting from taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the PA.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had reportedly informed Israel that the PA only intended to pay 60 percent of the 40 million shekel ($11.19 million) monthly bill, as Hamas, the de facto ruling party in Gaza, and the Fatah-led PA continued to blame each other for a deepening crisis in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Gaza electricity company said on Monday that it had been informed by Egypt’s power company that it could cut off power lines feeding Gaza at any time, without providing further details.

Both Israel and the PA have accused Hamas of collecting millions of shekels in taxes from Gazans every month without transferring the money to the PA, and instead “using (the money) to dig tunnels and for the advantage of Hamas,” as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) put it.

Last week, the Palestinian Energy and Natural Resources Authority blamed Hamas for obstructing the PA’s plan with Israel to solve the electricity crisis by not transferring electricity payments to the PA, rejecting statements by Gaza’s power authority saying that it had met all of the PA’s stipulations to end the electricity crisis, but that the governing body in the occupied West Bank had yet to respond.

The PA agency insisted that a solution to the severe electricity woes in Gaza could not be achieved without political reconciliation, some ten years into a bitter feud between Hamas and Fatah since Hamas’ 2006 victory in general elections held in the Gaza Strip.

However, critics have said the PA has attempted to use the electricity crisis to exert pressure on the Hamas government to release control of the small Palestinian territory.

Some two million Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave have had to make do with just three to four hours of electricity a day since April, and according to Israeli outlet The Jerusalem Post, the new electricity cuts will keep the power on for just two to three hours a day.

Gaza’s electricity company said on Monday afternoon that it had yet to receive any official orders to reduce electricity supply by an hour a day, in response to the reports.

“The Gaza Strip will suffer from dangerous consequences and crises in numerous sectors — particularly health, education, and services — if the electricity supply is reduced,” Muhamad Thabet, head of the electricity company’s public relations department, told Ma’an.

Thabet demanded that the United Nations and human rights organizations exert pressure on Israel to back down on executing the decision. He said that if and when Israeli authorities implement the move, the electricity company would update the public in a statement to confirm.

Despite the lack of clarity on when the cuts would be imposed, Thabet called upon Palestinians in Gaza to prepare for the upcoming crisis by conserving electricity to mitigate a possible all-out “collapse” of daily life.

Gaza’s Health Ministry also released a statement Monday, stressing that the medical sector has already been struggling to provide diesel fuel to operate the 87 generators that supply electricity to hospitals during blackout hours.

Head of the radiology department for Gaza’s public hospitals Ibrahim Abbas also said Monday that diagnostic radiology equipment that has been provided over the last ten years — at an estimated worth of $10 million — would soon fall into disrepair due to their sensitivity to blackouts.

Abbas said doctors and surgeons in Gaza are heavily reliant on the devices to accurately diagnose conditions and provide adequate medical care to thousands of Palestinian patients.

Gaza’s sole power plant shut down in April, with Gaza’s electricity officials saying they could not afford a PA-imposed tax on diesel fuel that doubled the price of operating the plant. The move also coincided with fuel aid from Qatar and Turkey drying up. The power plant has not run at full capacity in years, with Israel’s crippling blockade severely limiting fuel imports into the coastal enclave.

This left the Israeli power lines as the only reliable power source feeding the impoverished territory, since the power lines from Egypt that supply electricity to southern Gaza are often out of operation due to technical issues.

Hours before the Israeli cabinet approved the cut on Sunday, NGO Gisha — Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement, wrote a letter to Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman urging him not to further reduce power and warning against an impending humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“Reducing Israel’s electricity supply to Gaza is a red line that must not be crossed. This suggestion should be taken off the table entirely. Action must be taken to bring Gaza’s infrastructure to a level that meets the needs of its residents,” the letter asserted.

According to Gisha, entire hospital wings are already forced to shut down during Gaza’s daily blackouts, reducing essential, life-saving treatments as a result; while water desalination stations are inoperable, meaning household water is only available intermittently and sewage cannot be pumped away from residential areas.

Noting the destabilizing effects of the financial dispute between Hamas and the PA, Gisha insisted in its statement that Israel be held accountable for the crisis, saying that the state “is not just a service provider, responding neutrally to a client’s request.”

“The collective responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, Egypt, and the international community for the dire state of Gaza’s infrastructure does not diminish Israel’s marked accountability for the situation, nor its inescapable role in fixing it,” the statement said.

“Given its extensive control over life in the (Gaza) Strip, Israel is responsible for enabling normal life for its residents. Israel is obligated to find solutions that will allow for the continued supply of electricity at existing capacity, and to take active steps toward increasing supply in order to allow residents, whose taxes are collected and held by Israel, access to acceptable living conditions.”

The move also comes a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the dismantlement of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) — the UN agency responsible for providing services to more than five million Palestinian refugees — a move that UNRWA warned would have particularly devastating consequences on the Gaza Strip, where 80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released reports this month, warning of a full on crisis should the situation in Gaza continue on its current trajectory.

The enclave’s severe electricity shortages over the years have exacerbated the already dire living conditions in the small Palestinian territory. War has also taken its toll, and during Israel’s 50-day offensive on Gaza in 2014, the power plant was targeted, completely knocking it out of commission.

The UN has warned that the Gaza Strip would become uninhabitable for residents by 2020, pointing to the devastation of war and nearly a decade of Israel’s blockade.

Gaza power crisis explained:
Why Israel and Hamas are heading for a Face-off Neither Side Wants

By Amos Harel, Haaretz premium
June 12, 2017

Like the proverbial frog slowly cooking in a pot with the water temperature rising so gradually it doesn’t sense the danger, so the Gaza Strip is coming to this summer’s boiling point. Without it being either side’s objective, without any interest to be served by escalation, it looks as if Israel and Hamas are getting closer to a confrontation, with the active and exceptional encouragement of the Palestinian Authority.

The decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to ratchet up the economic pressure on the Hamas government in the Strip is the primary reason for the new tensions. Ten years after senior Fatah officials were booted out of Gaza, with the Hamas leadership refusing to recognize any sign of PA authority in the Strip, it seems that Abbas is tired of funding his political rivals. The sanctions on Gaza included lopping a third off the salaries of PA employees in the Strip, reducing the financial support for released prisoners and serious disruptions in the electricity supply.

Untreated wastewater, including sewage, is discharged directly into the Mediterranean sea. Photo by BBC.

The electricity is the most critical element in the picture. On normal days, Israel supplies 123 megawatts to Gaza through 10 power lines; 60 additional megawatts come from Gaza’s own power station (which is running at only half-capacity and relies on diesel fuel imported through Israel). When there are no malfunctions, another 23 megawatts are supplied by two Egyptian power lines.

The PA has already stopped paying the tax on the diesel fuel (which was being offset from the taxes it gets from Israel, which collects them on the PA’s behalf), which has shut down the power plant and is threatening to also stop funding the power from Israel. The combination of both these steps is liable to reduce the daily supply of power to Gaza to below its current level of four hours a day, which is already forcing citizens to rely on generators when possible, seriously undermines the operations of hospitals and disrupts waste treatment and the supply of potable water.

And this is happening at the start of the Gazan summer, with temperatures already starting to reach intolerable levels. Top Israeli political and security officials held several meetings over the past two weeks to discuss Gaza’s electricity crisis and the likelihood of a military escalation in the area. On Sunday, the inner cabinet also discussed these issues.

Senior Israeli officials, including Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have already announced the Israel cannot step into the PA’s shoes and pay off its debts. The Netanyahu government does not want to be seen as capitulating to Palestinian extortion.

Military officials told cabinet ministers that it’s important to maintain the accommodations that prevent a new military conflict in Gaza. They stressed that further disruption to the electricity supply in the territory could accelerate an escalation.

The Israeli government must presumably weigh the fact that the sums at issue, tens of millions of shekels a month, are lower than the economic cost of a single day of combat in Gaza, without even considering the expected casualties.

The crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is also affecting the mood in Gaza. In the past, when Hamas needed financial help, Qatar stepped up to the plate, with Egyptian support. Now however, Qatar is confronting an embargo imposed by the Saudis with Cairo’s clear support. These developments could push Hamas back into the arms of Iran.

Other things have been happening in the background. The Shin Bet security service recently announced it had foiled a Hamas plot to have Israeli Arab criminals assassinate an Israeli officer to avenge the assassination of Hamas operative Mazen Fuqaha in March. Hamas, which had previously blocked protests near the border fence with Israel, has started to encourage them (and over the past two weekends two Gaza residents were killed by IDF fire when they approached the fence).

Last, the Defence Ministry will soon expand its work on the new underground barrier that will prevent Hamas from being able to dig attack tunnels into Israel. The barrier will increase pressure on Hamas, whose military wing fears that it will deprive the organization of a strategic asset that had accrued from years of investment and hard work.

Last week the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was forced to announce that it had discovered a Hamas tunnel under one of its schools in Gaza. The announcement reinforced an old Israeli claim, which was also proved during Operation Protective Edge, that Hamas exploits humanitarian sites for military purposes. At the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the United Nations to reconsider the continued existence of the agency, which is devoted to supporting long-time Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Netanyahu is well aware of how the Trump administration feels about continuing to fund UN activities. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, visited Israel only last week, and one of her stops was a tour of the Gaza border with top Israeli officers, who showed her a Hamas attack tunnel that had been dug into Israeli territory.

Netanyahu’s new demand puts the UN agency in an uncomfortable situation. Israel might be able to score some public diplomacy points vis-a-vis the Palestinians, but that should not be a distraction from the main goal: preventing another superfluous Gaza war.

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