Let there be light: Life in Gaza without electricity

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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

Pam Bailey is founder of WeAreNotNumbers.org and international secretary for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. She is based in Washington, DC, and travels to the Middle East frequently.

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