Let there be light: Life in Gaza without electricity

Cross-posted from Pam Bailey’s blog, Pam In Progress (view for photos)

There are so many basic things most of us take for granted….like, electricity. But in Gaza — especially these days — it’s a precious commodity.

Power (of the electrical kind) has been rationed to some extent ever since I started visiting Gaza in 2009. As a freelance writer, it became part of my daily routine to shift from place to place in search of a good wifi connection — although, I should note, it was never good enough to down- or upload videos easily, back-up my computer or conduct a clear Skype conversation for any length of time.

I make it a practice to live with families in different parts of the Strip, rather than stay in hotels, so that means waking up many mornings to no lights, no Internet and no hot water. (Actually, for some homes, there is no running water at all when the power is out.) Or, on the truly joyful mornings when I wake up to POWER and can lie in bed checking emails (that is, when I stay with a family who can afford wifi; one of my host homes in Khan Younis cannot), the trade-off is going to bed in the pitch dark — using a kerosene lamp or flashlight to make sure I don’t kill myself as I stumble about. While businesses and hospitals have back-up generators, they are too expensive — and sometimes dangerous — for many households to run for long stretches of time.

So, when I come to Gaza, I am prepared to be patient, adjusting my work schedule to the situation. (That might mean, for example, being ready to hit the ground running at midnight when the power comes on..working until the wee hours of the morning, then sleeping late after the power goes off.) However, on this, my sixth, trip to Gaza, power is in particularly short supply. In fact, the average house is now being forced to live with a six hours on-12 hours off schedule, compared to an average of say, 12-12 before.

Combine that with an unusually harsh stretch of cold and wind and rain (which turned to ICE yesterday — a phenomenon not seen in Gaza for 10 years) — and you have a recipe for hardship of a more severe kind.

For instance, take yesterday. I woke up to no electricity, so I dismissed my hopes for a hot (or even warm) shower and by 10 I was out on the street hailing a shared car going “downtown.” (Private taxis are not used by most; rather, you can just flag down a car on the street, shouting out the neighborhood to which you want to go; for me, it costs just 53 cents [2 shekels] to get to the heart of Gaza City.) From there, I caught another car to Khan Younis, normally about a 30-minute drive in the direction of the Egyptian border. The roads were badly flooded, and given the deep ruts, the drive was torturous, taking double the amount of time.

There was no power at the home of my friends in Khan Younis either, and the cold was even more biting, if that was possible. Without central heat (or even small, portable heaters, which many homes use, but still require electricity), the temperature seems magnified. The family and I sat in the living room, bundled in coats usually reserved for the outdoors, sipping sahlab — a hot winter drink popular all over the Levant — and I listened to them crack dark jokes about the dismal power situation. (The silver lining to the dark cloud of the Israeli siege and all of its implications is the closeness of the family environment here. Just how often, I wonder, do most American families gather together like this for literally hours on end, doing nothing but chatting with each other?)

They have, the family tells me, seen stories about the United States on the TV, in which people become very upset when the power goes out for any reason, even for just a couple of hours, demanding, “What is the matter????” But in Gaza, they ask “what is the matter” when the power stays on.

One of our neighbors woke up one day and the power was on, went one of the jokes. And it didn’t go off. All day long, the power stayed on. She became so worried that she called the power company and asked the official, ‘Are you all ok over there? Is something wrong?’ (Uproarious laughter)

They make light of it, but life is hard right now. Even when the power comes on, it often is only intermittent. Everything from washing clothes to doing homework is challenging. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the current power shortages are leaving around 40% of the population without running water for most of the week. Another consequence is endangered healthcare. Although hospitals all have back-up generators, the same fuel shortage that is causing Gaza’s power plant to ration electricity is in short supply for other machinery. A spokesman for the Ministry of Health told the Palestinian Center for Human Rights that more than 80% of patients in the Gaza Strip are threatened as a result — particularly the 100 or so premature babies requiring incubators, more than 400 individuals who need kidney dialysis and 66 persons in intensive care units. If the fuel shortage doesn’t improve soon, the spokesman said, surgery suites and emergency rooms will be paralyzed as well.

So…just what caused this abysmal state of affairs? Gisha’s “Gaza Gateway” report provides a good “Clif Notes” explanation:

In June 2006, following the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by resistance fighters in Gaza, Israel bombed Gaza’s power plant, destroying its transformers. The damage has yet to be fully repaired, due in part to a shortage of supplies.

In October 2007, Israel imposed restrictions on the transfer of fuel to Gaza, including the industrial diesel needed to operate the power plant. After months of shortages and interruptions of electricity supply and transportation, the Hamas government began bringing fuel into Gaza via the tunnels from Egypt. But officially, Egypt does not consider the tunnels to be a legitimate supply channel, so the government believes it can crack down whenever it likes. Thus, one primary contributor to the current shortage is Egypt’s recent decision to cut back on the tunnel trade.

Although the Egyptian military — which continues to rule the country after the revolution — has agreed to begin discussing longer-term solutions, such as tying Gaza into Egypt’s energy grid, some reports say any such actions are contingent on a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas (still an elusive goal, despite many meetings).

Escalating an increasingly strident war of words, Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a weekly address: “Is it reasonable that Gaza remains without electricity a year after the revolution in Egypt? Is it reasonable that Gaza remains blockaded a year after the dismissal of the tyrant (Hosni Mubarak) regime?”

Meanwhile, the shortages are exacerbated by internal disputes between Fatah and Hamas, who have long sparred over financial responsibility for Gaza’s energy supply, and use the issue to paint the other one in a bad light. Some of the youth in Gaza I have talked to insist that there is sufficient fuel, but that Hamas, for instance, is hoarding it to heighten the media spotlight on conditions in Gaza and use the resulting coverage to its political advantage

Whatever the causes of the fuel shortage, the bottom line is that the people pay.

So…back to my day. I returned home at around 10 p.m. The power had come on again at 6, but alas, it was not for long; it suddenly turned off again at midnight. There was no other choice but to read by flashlight, or go to sleep…

About Pam Bailey

I am social entrepreneur who reports on Palestine; teaches journalism/ social media & consults on communication strategies in the fight for peace & justice. Have 2 homes: Washington DC & Gaza.
Posted in Gaza, Israel/Palestine, On the ground reports | Tagged , , ,

{ 11 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. OlegR says:

    /Although the Egyptian military — which continues to rule the country after the revolution — has agreed to begin discussing longer-term solutions, such as tying Gaza into Egypt’s energy grid, some reports say any such actions are contingent on a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas (still an elusive goal, despite many meetings)./

    Interesting.
    A welcome development if it actually happens.

    • joec says:

      I’m not sure I agree. It’s barely a secret that Israel would like nothing more than to pawn the Gaza Strip onto Egypt, as it’s been trying to do since Camp David. Ridding itself of 1.7 million militant Palestinians and separating them politically from the rest of their country would ease its burden tremendously and open a world of new possibilities, such as the annexation of the West Bank on Zionist terms (link to j.mp), for it. And transferring the Gaza Strip from Israel’s power grid to Egypt’s would be history’s single biggest step in that direction to date.

      • OlegR says:

        Better that Palestinians sit in the dark than get Israel of the hook.
        Nice logic.

      • ritzl says:

        Integrating Gaza power into the Egyptian grid does NOT constitute “pawning” off Gaza to Egypt. It means three things, only (in descending order of importance):

        • That the people of Gaza have, as PB explains, a more consistent power source. A more normal life. ( I would point out too, that without power to distill, the simplest method, water on a regular basis, Gazans simply cannot stop drinking toxic water. Gaza water MUST be distilled or otherwise purified to be safe by even the most subsistence-level standard. It’s just that bad. Across the board.)

        • Egypt (and the Sinai community) benefits from Gaza’s needs, instead of Israel. This means more opportunity in the Sinai for Egyptian/Bedu people. It builds upon itself, in the sense that more benefit of an interface with Gaza, lays the path to even more benefit. Egyptian politics ensues, perhaps opening Rafah fully.

        This also means that it is a zero sum opportunity between Egypt and Israel. Any gain by Egypt is a loss for Israel. Israel has a multi-$B occupation industry. Aid cash is currently used to purchase goods exclusively in Israel, which Israel withholds for a time or sporadically (non-accountable interest is generated). If Rafah opens, this racket diminishes or goes away.

        • It places Egyptian power generation infrastructure, or Egypt proper, at risk of Israeli attack, if power to Gaza is to be denied (as seems to be the case). In current parlance, that’s a “red-line.”

        Bottom line is that Gazans would be personally free(er) to pursue more or mostly normal lives if Rafah opened up (dots connected).

        The politics behind all this are profound. Would Gazans decide to abandon reunification and go their own way if this scenario played out (2 or 3 state solution)? Would Hamas democratize, if left to its own devices? Would Gaza elections be free and fair? Is the principle and movement of Palestinian reunification dependent on mutual subjugation and the relative extent of that subjugation (I don’t think it is necessarily, but people can be bought, re PA)?

        Sorry to stray, OT, but just this simple comment raises all kinds of permutations (treaty and otherwise), and shows what’s at stake, and how everything could change in a heartbeat on the Palestinian side. I think, also, that some of this circumscribes Egypt’s reluctance to open up any of these options (i.e. their desire to force Palestinian reunification), despite benefits.

        Complex. Understatement.

  2. Pam Bailey says:

    Actually, there are many rumors swirling…The latest is that Egypt is playing the bad guy because Hamas stole and smuggled some cars and won’t’ give them back. Or, that Egypt was pissed because the unity deal was signed in Qatar not Cairo….Who knows!

  3. Mndwss says:

    “Let there be light: Life in Gaza without electricity”

    AC/DC – Live – Let There Be Rock 1977:

    (Edited)

    Let there be Israel:

    In the beginning
    Back in nineteen 1948
    Man didn’t know ’bout a apartheid state
    Called Israel
    The white man had the schmaltz
    The jew had the blues
    No one knew what they was gonna do
    But Theodor Herzl had the news, he said
    Let there be invasion, and there was invasion
    Let there be nakba, and there was nakba
    Let there be apartheid, and there was apartheid
    Let there be war, and there was war, ah
    Let there be Israel

    And it came to pass
    That Israel was born
    All across the world every church
    Was blowin’ up a storm
    And the preacher man got famous
    The business man got rich
    And in every church there was a superstar
    With a holy land itch
    There was fifteen million churches
    Learnin’ how to hate (Palestinians)
    And you could hear the people praying
    And this is what they had to say

    Let there be invasion, nakba, apartheid, ‘n war, ah
    Let there be Israel

    One night in a club called AIPAC
    There was a 42 decibel Israel firsters gathering
    And the music was bad
    And the music was loud
    And if the president turned and he said to the crowd:

    Let there be Peace?

    —————

    (Next verse in the future?)

    And the president was weak
    And there was a war
    And the president had a Dallas experience
    An Iranian was arrested
    for what a Zionist had done

    And the business man got rich
    And you can hear the people praying……

  4. RE: “Power (of the electrical kind) has been rationed to some extent ever since I started visiting Gaza in 2009.” ~ Pam Bailey

    FROM ALISTAIR CROOKE, London Review of Books, 03/03/11:

    (excerpts)…It was [Ariel] Sharon who pioneered the philosophy of ‘maintained uncertainty’ that repeatedly extended and then limited the space in which Palestinians could operate by means of an unpredictable combination of changing and selectively enforced regulations, and the dissection of space by settlements, roads Palestinians were not allowed to use and continually shifting borders. All of this was intended to induce in the Palestinians a sense of permanent temporariness
    …It suits Israel to have a ‘state’ without borders so that it can keep negotiating about borders, and count on the resulting uncertainty to maintain acquiescence

    SOURCE – link to lrb.co.uk
    ALSO SEE: Learned helplessness - link to en.wikipedia.org

  5. Pam. Do the right thing and simply tell the readers that Israel isn’t to blame for the power shortage in Gaza, Hamas and Fatah are to blame.

    • ritzl says:

      So the 40%-50% of the power in Gaza that is supplied by Israel is consistent and ongoing? That means that ALL Gazans have power 50% (round numbers) of the time, or 50% of Gaza has power ALL the time.

      That doesn’t appear to be the case, based on someone’s observations that actually lives there.

      It’s a widely (wildly) repeated talking point that Hamas occasionally restricts fuel shipments to the Gaza power plant. Even if true, that doesn’t explain the intermittancy of the other 50% of Gaza’s power. Since Israel supplies that other 50%, that’s completely Israel’s doing.

      PB describes a situation where Gazans have power about 25% of the time. If Hamas was completely restricting fuel ALL the time, you would not have the situation she describes. Given Israel’s own talking points, that isn’t happening ALL the time. So the 25% power to all of Gaza on a regular basis would seem to be Israel reducing power into Gaza by some 50% or more, even if you assume Hamas NEVER lets fuel in (which is not the case).

      My guess is that Israel let’s fuel in and simultaneously reduces what grid power they supply, in order to keep Gaza at about 25%. Unless, of course, you believe Hamas is throwing grid switches to score publicity points, in which case, please provide specifics. I haven’t seen this talking point yet.

    • Chaos4700 says:

      Did Fatah and Hams fly the F-16 that bombed Gaza’s power plant?