Hundreds of residents of the Jabaliya refugee camp braved plunging temperatures in Gaza last Thursday to take to the streets and protest against the coastal strip’s worsening electricity crisis.
Among them were Muhammad Shamali, 19, who said the situation was fast becoming untenable in the cold winter conditions.
“The situation is getting unbearable. We have electricity for only three hours a day in this freezing season,” the university student told The Electronic Intifada. “We are used to having the electricity off, but not for this long.”
Such demonstrations have not been confined to this impoverished refugee camp in northern Gaza. As winter sunk its teeth in, protests sprung up across the Gaza Strip over the past week urging Palestinian leaders, in Gaza and beyond, to find a solution.
A shortage of electricity is a chronic problem in the Gaza Strip. Electricity infrastructure was targeted and destroyed during multiple Israeli military offensives over the past 10 years and cannot be repaired due to Israeli restrictions on the import of materials and spare parts to Gaza. Further restrictions on the import of fuel combined with a lack of funds have conspired over several years to create an acute crisis.
But even by Gaza’s desperate standards, the situation this winter has reached a new low. Frequent power cuts have left Palestinians in Gaza with just three hours of electricity at a time and anywhere between 12 and 18 hours of blackouts every day and have impacted nearly all facets of life.
Qatar has now stepped in with a promise to help pay for electricity, and a first installment of a $12 million donation reportedly was made on Monday to help put Gaza back on the schedule of eight hours of electricity followed by an eight-hour blackout that prevailed before the latest crisis.
But this has come only after a week of protests that has seen Hamas security forces arrest – and then release – demonstrators and allegedly accost journalists while Fatah and Hamas traded accusations over who was responsible.
Time for a solution
It’s enough, said Adham Khalil, a social science postgraduate student at the Islamic University of Gaza, who was also demonstrating on 12 January.
“We have endured enough hardships because of the power outages. It is time to find a solution to the crisis so people can be spared this horrific situation,” Khalil, 28, told The Electronic Intifada.
Khalil said his studies have been severely affected by the power cuts. He has to stay late at an Internet café to do research and study for his final exams. “We do not have a reliable source of power at home, so I have to go to the café. When there is no electricity, there is nothing to do but sit at home and gossip. Time is frozen.”
More seriously, power cuts can sometimes mean the family has to take Khalil’s grandfather to the hospital, since the elderly asthma sufferer occasionally needs help with his breathing.
“Ask anyone in Gaza, and they will have some tragic story to tell you about the power cuts. We have all suffered but, it seems, these tragedies are not enough for the world to act to stop this ordeal.”
For Khalil, who is to blame for what is not important. He wants a solution, once and for all.
But while Qatari aid will mitigate the situation in the short term, a permanent solution seems a long way off.
The Gaza Strip has been suffering severe electricity shortages since the Israeli blockade of Gaza started 10 years ago.
Tareq Lubbad, a spokesperson for Gaza’s power company, told The Electronic Intifada that while Gaza needs up to 600 megawatts, it gets only about a third of that.
“The Egyptian lines which supply the southern parts of Gaza with electricity are now broken and need to be repaired,” Lubbad said.
The bigger problem with Israel, however, is the restriction on the import of fuel, said Lubbad. “Israel refuses to allow in adequate amounts of fuel to operate the sole power plant for longer.”
Everything is affected
Lubbad pointed to Israel’s bombing of the power plant a decade ago as the origin of the crisis.
In an “act of vengeance,” as one human rights group put it, Israel bombed the power plant in June 2006 following the capture of an Israeli soldier in Gaza. The plant has not functioned at full capacity since then.
Gaza’s power company is also burdened by an enormous debt, largely due to the difficulty in collecting payments in the impoverished territory. Lubbad estimated that some 70 percent of households in Gaza do not pay their bills, a total of $1 billion in unpaid bills according to some reports.
In addition, while the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank pays Israel and Egypt for any power Gaza is supplied, it has cut back tax exemptions for Gaza on the fuel, citing its own economic squeeze, and angering Hamas.
A Hamas spokesperson told Reuters that the PA was using the crisis as a means to “damage Hamas’ image and sanction Gaza’s people.”
Talks are underway between Ramallah and Gaza to solve the problem, said Abdelkarim Abdeen, deputy minister at the Palestine Energy Authority in the West Bank.
The ongoing crisis has also drawn the attention of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, who urged “all responsible authorities” to unite their efforts in order to end the electricity crisis.
On the ground, meanwhile, almost everything has been adversely affected by the crisis.
Salem Abu Rashed, a maintenance engineer with the Gaza City municipality, said the power crisis has negatively impacted all public services in the area.
“Water pumps cannot work without a reliable and sustainable source of energy. Some areas are therefore not getting their share of water. The sewage system is also hampered, since the pumps need electricity to work.”
And like with so much else in Gaza, people simply end up having to adapt.
Muna Abu Sabha is a mother of six. She washes the family’s clothes by hand and during the day time. She will end up baking at nighttime. And she still tries to help her four youngest with their studies, even if by candlelight.
“I sit to teach four of my children in the same room when the electricity is off, which just leaves me truly burnt out,” Abu Sabha said.
“The crisis is beyond our ability to bear. We have endured enough.”
Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.