Pillows of light gray smoke no longer waft out the chimneys of Gaza’s only power plant in Nuseirat refugee camp. Ordinarily, the power plant produces constant pollution and noise. When the factory goes silent and the sky clears, farmers living nearby know it is a signal that electricity shortages will follow.
Fuel supply to the plant was completely suspended in mid-April, following a dispute between the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. For the last ten years, Gaza bought fuel to run the plant from the PA. But the West Bank government recently increased a fuel tax to $.82 per liter, making it unaffordable for the plant to purchase. The price went up as part PA sanctions against Hamas, after the Gaza-based group formed a local administrative committee to replace the national consensus government, a shared power agreement with the PA. This move effectively ousted the West Bank-based government of any remaining influence inside of the Gaza Strip.
In the past when the plant shut down it was because Israel targeted it. The plant was hit by Israeli forces in 2006 causing destruction in two of the plant’s four main generators. As a result, from 2006 – 2017, Gazans were forced to live on 8 hours of electricity. However, last April the plant was forced to switch off completely due to a lack of fuel.
Relations between the PA and Hamas continued to deteriorate in April after the PA reduced the salaries of their 60,000 employees in Gaza to 70 percent. At the same time the pay cuts were announced, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah told his cabinet that plans were already drafted as to how his government could once again take control over Gaza, so long as Hamas agreed to give up their role.
The PA also claimed Hamas had diverted tax funds collected for the purposes of providing electricity. Until recently International aid supported Gaza’s power plant. In mid-April as tensions were increasing between Hamas and the PA, the last funds donated to Gaza from Turkey and Qatar in January for fuel were spent.
Hamas is drowning in a financial crisis and is powerless to when it comes to paying for fuel bills. Thus Gazans are left with a few hours of electricity, averaging three and a half hours of electricity a day.
Among Palestinians residing in Gaza, the prevailing view of the electricity crisis is that the PA wants control inside of Gaza and is using energy to send a message to Hamas — give up control of Gaza, or you will pay the cost of chaos.
Palestinians in the besieged strip now are trying to figure out how to live their lives without light.
Mohammed Abu Kamil, 28, who lives in Gaza’s Beach Refugee Camp said he can no longer recharge batteries for his electric wheelchair, which he uses to visit schools to educate children about people with disabilities.
“Everything has been stopped,” Abu Kamil said, “I used to run three daily visits to schools to give lectures about how should students deal with the disabled. But now I cannot charge the two batteries as they need eight hours to recharge and now even my chair has become disabled as well.”
“This week, I only visited one school, fearing that my batteries may run out during my rounds. I’m afraid of finding myself without power, alone in the street. Even I can’t go out with my friends after the electricity disappeared. It seems I must pay the price for my disability. You can’t feel comfortable while a friend pushes you manually,” he told Mondoweiss.
The famous butcher in the Sheikh Radwan downtown vegetable market, Fadi al-Helu, 33, pays $60 a day for diesel to run a generator in his ten-freezer shop in order to prevent his frozen meat from melting.
“Today customers are asking to buy only 500 grams [1 lb] of meat for their daily use. They can no longer freeze in their refrigerators due to the lack of electricity, and some are asking to buy for only one dollar of chicken liver.” Al-Helu said.
Owner of a local water desalination plant, Haitham Matar, said that the ongoing power shortage has had the effect of cutting off water supplies in houses.
“Today, my customers demand pure water for bathing. This is an additional loss for these poor families,” Matar said. A 5,000 liters water tank costs $55.
The power outages have also hit Gaza’s manufacturers.
In the east of Gaza City, dozens of carpentry workshops have shut down. Thousands of wooden panels are lined up waiting to be cut and crafted to meet customers’ needs.
Ali Shaqra, 28, uses a hammer and a manual saw to build a bedroom set for a groom who has waited 20 days for a project that would have taken five if there were electricity. “There is no way to use a screw gun or electric saw. Everything is paralyzed. Here we live in the Bronze Age,” Shaqra said sadly.
“Customers do not like to wait, they think I’m a loser. I cannot afford a big generator to operate the motors, but I still have to pay for the wasted time. My workers here have gotten used to drinking coffee waiting for electricity to resume,” he said.
What power Palestinian do have from the grid comes from Israeli and Egyptian power lines that together generate three to four hours of electricity a day, according to Ahmad Abu al-Amreen, director at the Gaza Energy Authority. Of that amount, Israel provides about 120 megawatts of power while Egypt gives 20 to 30 megawatts.
Gaza’s electrical demands would need 400 megawatts a day, plus another 600,000 liters of fuel to activate the power plant for an additional eight hours of power.
In a measure that stands to propel Gaza’s nearly 2 million residents into complete darkness, the PA recently told Israel it will no longer cover the bill of electricity Gaza purchases from Israeli power lines. Abbas Zaki, a member of the Fatah Central Committee in the West Bank, told the Jerusalem Post that Gaza’s monthly electrical purchases from Israeli providers costs $11 million [40 million NIS].
Talal Okal, an independent political analyst in Gaza, believes that the prospect of looming negotiations with Israel led by the new American administration is key to understanding the timing of the PA-Hamas political dispute and ensuing electrical crisis.
Abbas recently had a meeting with President Donald Trump over a potential peace deal with Israel. However, Abbas does not yield power inside Gaza, Okal explained. With no unity government in place, Abbas cannot be a representative of the Palestinians living in Gaza, therefore strong-arming Hamas into accepting PA authority in exchange for the PA covering Gaza’s electrical bill’s once again is critical to Abbas.
Abbas considers Hamas is an obstacle that has cast a shadow on his 12 years as president, Okal told Mondoweiss.