Gaza: The Politics of Darkness

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The local power plant – shut down twice in the past two years – was operated again using a limited daily supply of fuel smuggled through the tunnels. (Photo: Shuaib Abou-Jahl)

By: Doha Shams

Published Wednesday, March 7, 2012

From the window overlooking the pier of Gaza’s humble port, you can see nothing at night but two lamp posts barely lighting the space underneath. Every once in a while, even the two lights are extinguished and total darkness takes over. You stare into the night, you hear the waves but you don’t see anything. There is no moon. Only dark clouds pouring out their inexhaustible load of rain.

Gaza – The underground wells have been filled with rainwater and the people are optimistic about the upcoming farming season. Despite the continued stormy weather, spring is approaching. The orchards are filled with yellow and white flowers covering the grassland under the olive and lemon trees.

There is a visible shortage of water-pipes in cafés, where white neon lights radiate. I don't know why I don't like neon lights. Perhaps because they are too dim – deficient, like a "thundercloud that does not rain," as the poem puts it.

The tone of the light betrays the power source – what we experts in electricity shortages refer to as "UPS", (uninterruptible power supply): batteries that recharge when the mains current is running, so they can be used to power lights when the electricity is cut off. But the mains supply is so scarce here in Gaza that not even that is always possible.

The lighting problem can be resolved to a certain extent by a combination of generators, mains electricity, and the UPS. But what about refrigerators preserving food? What about the irregular current that ruins appliances? Gazans are surprised by the relevance of these questions about electricity. I explain to them that we have the same problem in Lebanon.

Gaza's restaurants are also concerned about the power outage. In one establishment, Ahmad – a waiter with a college diploma in public relations, who hopes to find a job abroad – said there was only one week’s worth of gas and fuel left to power the generators.

After that, he said, they would probably revert to using the "portable kerosene burners we used during the aggression,” Israel’s 2008/9 assault on the Gaza Strip. “We have a huge one with three burners connected to a cylinder that we filled with kerosene and cooked on," he explained.

And where does the kerosene come from? "The tunnels, but at black market prices," he responds.

To keep meat and dairy products from spoiling, he said, the trick is not to stock such perishable foods but purchase them daily according to need. "But we really don't know what we're going to need. It's a big problem," he said.

It is indeed. The Egyptians were reported to have reneged on an offer to supply diesel to Gaza. One day earlier, it was announced that an attempt to smuggle fuel from Egypt through Gaza's tunnels – an activity that has flourished since the blockade was imposed – had been “foiled.” It is funny. The only thing foiled by such actions are the efforts of people on both sides to make a living through the lucrative black market.

They also have political implications in Egypt. Egypt’s Speaker of Parliament Saad al-Katatni is doing his best to help his "brothers" in Gaza. Well-placed sources told Al-Akhbar that the Egyptian legislature had in fact extracted promises from the electricity and oil ministries to supply Gaza, but they had not been acted on. Egyptian policy on Palestine, as one observer put it, has yet to make the “transition between the Hosni Mubarak and Muslim Brotherhood eras.”

Despite the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the rift between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and Hamas-ruled Gaza remains highly charged – and liable to affect all Palestinians' affairs and concerns.

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Gaza government, delivered an "electric" sermon last Friday at al-Shate Camp Mosque in which he blamed Egypt for the shortages. This brought tensions between the two sides out into the open, and also constituted a kind of denial of blame on Hamas’ part.

There was a new development Saturday, when Cairo announced that it was willing to supply Gaza with fuel at world market prices – in other words, not at the cheaper Egyptian domestic price. Haniyeh said he had been told that bluntly by the Egyptian energy ministry. Gazans cannot help recalling the outrage in Egypt when the former regime sold gas to Israel at below domestic prices, despite shortages at home. But Hamas is not Israel.

Nevertheless, the crisis was exacerbated after the Gaza Energy Authority (GEA) stopped operating the only power station in the Gaza Strip. The reason was the failure to secure supplies of diesel fuel, according to Ahmad Abu al-Umrayn an engineer at the energy ministry in Gaza.

"I wish you came to our home, my children love the Lebanese accent," Abu al-Umrayn said as we left his unlit second-floor office. "They say: ‘Dad, they speak like in Al-Ghaliboun (The Winners),’" a TV series aired on Hezbollah’s channel, al-Manar. Do they still watch al-Manar after Hamas left Syria? I kept the question to myself.

The man, with a prayer mark on his forehead, sighed before explaining the story of the electricity problem. "We need 350 megawatts of electricity, but we only have 220 from three sources – from Egypt, Israel, and the local power plant. This has been the electricity problem for years."

The new development aggravating the problem, he explained, is that the Energy GEA is running out of fuel supplies needed to operate the local station, forcing it to stop its operation. It provided one-third of Gaza’s needs.

With Egypt supplying only 35 percent of requirements, severe electricity rationing was introduced, providing power for only six hours every 18 hours. For over one year, Gaza has been reliant on fuel from Egypt too, he said, after the European Union (EU) stopped providing it via the Israeli side. The EU does not recognize the legitimacy of the elected Hamas government, and, according to Haniyeh, began to transfer the funds due to it to the PA in Ramallah.

The Egyptian fuel comes through the tunnels, Abu al-Umrayn added, but “that has become scarce in recent days due to the tight Egyptian security measures."

Why would that be, following the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? "We don't know,” he replied, adding, “The Egyptians should answer that question."

Abu al-Umrayn said there were "intensive contacts" with Egyptian officials last month. GEA head Kanaan Obeid went to Egypt twice, and tried unsuccessfully to secure the provision of fuel supplies to Gaza through official channels. “There were repeated promises to do this, but nothing has yet to be achieved," he said.

The local power plant – shut down twice in the past two years – was operated again using a limited daily supply of fuel smuggled through the tunnels, he explained. "But these supplies also became scarce, so we turned it off again. If there are no sufficient and significant fuel supplies today, we cannot operate the station because it will be damaged by repeatedly turning it on and off."

Electricity rationing may also have to be tightened, as the cold weather increases consumption, he said. Electricity is also needed to deliver water to households, and to operate the sewage and desalination plants. He warned that Gaza was facing the prospect of a real humanitarian crisis. "This crisis is the last remaining episode of the siege on Gaza,” Abu al-Umrayn said, while adding that “it has to be broken by Egypt."

Abu al-Umrayn also charged that the PA in Ramallah “took measures to obstruct the negotiations with the Egyptian side to solve the crisis."

For example, GEA technicians who had been formally invited to discuss details of a solution were suddenly prevented from traveling. He hinted that this might be part of a political ploy to undermine Hamas’ popularity ahead of possible Palestinian elections in May.

Other observers assert openly that the Fatah-Hamas rift has a major role in the crisis.

“It is forbidden to resolve the crisis,” remarked one source who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that some crisis or another always seems to suddenly break out when Palestinian political reconciliation looms. "Honestly, no one wants reconciliation. Everyone has a hen that lays golden eggs, so why leave it?"

But wouldn’t reconciliation be an electoral asset to Hamas, by enabling the blockade of the Gaza Strip to be lifted and among other things, the electricity to be restored? "Hamas' government is considered elected, even if it was ousted. It has legitimacy,” he replied. “If we form a unity government of independents, as the reconciliation agreement suggests, they will lose the legitimacy card."

Do both sides fear the elections? The observer replied that in the Gaza Strip, “the people, even the Fatah people, voted for Hamas to protest Fatah's corruption. But after six or seven years of an Islamic government, the people discovered that corruption still exists, but in a different form."

He suggested that Hamas was aware that it would only win the votes of its core supporters, which he estimated at 30 percent of the electorate. Fatah would gain about the same proportion of the vote at most, he predicted, “despite all the propaganda and buying votes from both sides."

The remaining 40 percent of the vote would likely be distributed among other groups “which will probably be better because they will be forced to form a coalition government, so they will be able to monitor each other," he said. Or obstruct each other, I tell myself.

On prospects for a civil disobedience campaign – as called for by Maher al-Taher of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) recently at al-Bureij refugee camp – the same source said this would be difficult to accomplish. "Who will lead this disobedience? Carrying out any struggle needs a force on the ground. The factions have lost their strength and the civil institutions are powerless," he said, adding, "There are two main organizations and the rest are accessories, nothing more."

Likewise, the observer ruled out the much-predicted possibility of a “Third Intifada” in the Gaza Strip, though not in the West Bank. "It would not be an intifada against Israel, but against the Salam Fayyad government, because the economic situation is quickly deteriorating there," he said.

He said economic conditions in the West Bank were even harder than in Gaza because of the rising cost of living. "The taxes imposed by Fayyad's government are insanity," he commented. For example, "a pack of cigarettes in Gaza costs US$1.50, while in the West Bank it costs US$5! It is the same brand, but taxes there are crazy. Meats, vegetables, everything, even the can of Coke coming from Ramallah's factories costs 7 shekels (US$2) there and here it costs 2 shekels (50 US cents)."

There is even a satirical song out called "Fayyad, where are you taking us? Have you heard it? It's on Youtube," he said while laughing.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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