“Like living in a big factory” in Gaza

Palestinian children playing near Gaza’s only power plant, which has had to reduce its production due to the siege. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

“Uff, uff, uff, you can never get time to rest or sleep quietly and you can’t even work. Wherever you are, you hear sound of power generators which makes it seem we are all living in a big factory,” Ahmad al-Bar explained, expressing the frustration of many Palestinians in Gaza at the electricity crisis there, now going on three years.

But al-Bar, a resident of the Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, narrowly escaped something much worse than the constant disturbance from ubiquitous gasoline-powered generators. He almost lost his baby, Sharraf, and part of his apartment.

On a recent Tuesday around midnight, al-Bar’s small power generator suddenly cut off. “I rushed to see what happened and I was carrying a candle. I saw some spurts of gasoline on the balcony and as I got close to the generator a big fire blazed on the balcony and the generator made a large explosion,” al-Bar recalled.

As usual and because of the intense summer heat, baby Sharraf was laying just near the balcony in his cradle and it appeared that only the grace of God saved him.

Al-Bar recounted his terror at that moment. His brother who lives downstairs rushed up with a fire extinguisher and helped put out the fire as al-Bar clutched Sharraf in his arms to protect him.

Such an incident could happen anywhere in the Gaza Strip. Due to the regular power outages that average 8-12 hours per day, power generators are everywhere. Local sources estimate that dozens of people in Gaza have been exposed to either injury or death because of such power generators in the last few months alone.

Gaza’s 1.6 million residents receive electricity from the coastal territory’s sole plant which itself depends on fuel shipments from Israel. Israel bombed the power plant in 2006, causing severe damage. Fuel for the plant is paid for by the European Union through the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. This plant provides under half of Gaza’s electricity needs, the rest being supplied by cable from Israel and Egypt.

In recent months power outages have increased and accusations have flown between the Hamas-led wing of the PA, and the Western-backed West Bank wing headed by Mahmoud Abbas. Each accuses the other of failing to meet its obligations to pay its share of the cost of fuel for the Gaza plant.

Recently, the West Bank PA accused the Hamas authorities of failing to transfer the needed monthly funds to pay the fuel bill. Hamas demands that the West Bank PA take full financial responsibility based on what Hamas says is the EU’s financial obligation to pay for the fuel. Like the United States and other donors, the EU boycotts the Hamas-led wing of the PA even though Hamas actually won the 2006 elections, and passes aid money only through the West Bank wing.

Throughout the three-year-long Israeli blockade, Israel has allowed shipments of fuel, yet according to local sources, the amounts allowed have not met the actual need of Gaza’s power plant. The electricity company in Gaza has frequently shut down the plant, or come within hours of doing so until fuel arrived.

The West Bank PA argues that Hamas has not done enough to collect payment on electricity bills from the besieged residents of Gaza, so that the fuel could flow into the territory more regularly.

In Gaza, the Hamas-led government has responded with proposals to withhold some money from employees on its payroll for unpaid bills. But with unemployment in Gaza at around 40 percent and more than two-thirds of the population dependent on humanitarian handouts, every additional penny can be a hardship. Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza has devastated the local economy, shutting down most manufacturers, decimating agriculture and exports and throwing tens of thousands of workers out of their jobs.

Accordingly, municipal sources suggest that a majority of households have not paid electricity bills regularly in the last three years. The electricity crisis is causing additional unrest. Recently, some leftist political factions took to the streets to protest the situation. But instead of allowing the public to express outrage, the Hamas authorities and police personnel forcibly dispersed protesters and detained more than a dozen of them.

As the crisis goes unsolved, Gazans will continue to rest, sleep or work with the sounds of power generators ringing in their ear.

This reporter wrote this dispatch using a power generator late at night. The previous night, the generator also abruptly turned off, creating fear that it might also catch fire like al-Bar’s. But even if one turns one’s generator off, to spare one’s family or neighbors the noise, there is always another one buzzing away somewhere.

Amid the record summer heat and the noise, it’s almost impossible to get any rest before starting a long Ramadan fasting day. It’s another misfortune from which Palestinians in Gaza can find no escape.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.