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Why must Gaza wait in the dark?

Separating Gaza’s electricity supply from the political conflict is a step long overdue.

By Sam Bahour

Palestians gather near a fire in the At-Tuffah district of Gaza City, which was heavily damaged by Israeli attacks during the latest offensive, Gaza City, September 6, 2014.

Palestinians gather near a fire in the At-Tuffah district of Gaza City, which was heavily damaged by Israeli attacks during the latest offensive, Gaza City, September 6, 2014.

When I asked my colleague in Gaza about her biggest dream, her answer made an impression on me: “I dream of what life would be like with 24-hour electricity.” This was the answer of a single, mid-career, western educated, professional woman who lives in the more affluent part of Gaza City. Her response suggests the depth of despair among Palestinians throughout Gaza.

Day-to-day life in Gaza between Israeli attacks is unworthy news for Western mainstream media. As a result, few people are aware that electricity in Gaza is a luxury, with blackouts lasting 16-18 hours—every day. This bitter reality has warped people’s lives for years now, as they must plan their daily activities around the four-six hours when they anticipate electricity, even if that means waking up to put laundry in the washing machine in the middle of the night.

Smoke and flames rise from Gaza

Smoke rises from the power plant in Gaza hit by Israeli missile strikes on July 29, 2014. (photo: UN)

Contrary to common belief, the severe undersupply of electricity in Gaza is not new, and not a result of the latest military aggression. Gaza has not had uninterrupted electricity since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. In an attempt to compensate for the Israeli disruption of Gaza’s power supply, the Palestinians established their first power generation plant in 2004. Ever since, Israel has regularly limited the supply of electricity and industrial fuel needed to operate this only power plant in Gaza. Israel’s ability to deny families in Gaza the energy they need is nothing less than collective punishment of Palestinians—an entire community is made to pay for the acts of a few.

Separating Gaza’s electricity supply from the political conflict is a step long overdue. Access to electricity—a basic necessity that much of the world, including Israeli citizens can take for granted—should not be conditional upon outcomes of future negotiations. Continued darkness in Gaza serves no one.

During Israel’s military aggression on Gaza this past summer, Israel again bombed the sole power plant in Gaza. (Israel bombed the same plant on June 28, 2006.)  In a July 29, 2014 article about the latest destruction, the Guardian quoted Amnesty International which stated, “the crippling of the power station amounted to collective punishment of Palestinians.” Amnesty went on to note that, “the strike on the plant will worsen already severe problems with Gaza’s water supply, sewage treatment and power supplies to medical facilities.”

On September 14, 2014, less than 50 days after the Israeli strike on the plant and less than a month after the cessation of fighting, the Middle East Monitor reported that the CEO of the Gaza Electricity Company, Walid Sayel, announced that Gaza’s power plant was ready to resume operating, pending fuel supply. “The Turkish minister of energy,” the item continued, “had said that his country is ready to send a floating 100 megawatt power plant to Gaza after obtaining the necessary permits [from Israel].” As Palestinians in Gaza try to move on, none of the players involved in the latest debacle, foremost among them Israel, is being held accountable.

The barrier is not simply being without fuel for the power plant. The issue is much more complex and calculated. If Turkey were serious about helping, their floating power station would already be in Gaza’s territorial waters even if they had to face down the Israeli navy and risk an international incident to bring electricity to Gaza. If the Palestinian Authority were serious, we would not have to witness the CEO of a Palestinian power plant begging for the funds needed to get the power plant running. And most importantly, Israel has the capacity to provide Gaza with continuous electricity immediately. According to international law, as the occupying power, Israel has sole responsibility to remedy this issue immediately.

To the governments and leaders who just returned to Cairo for another round of ceasefire negotiations with no timeline or end in sight, I challenge them to first focus on this basic and humane step: Give the people of Gaza access to electricity. It would be a basic step in easing the stresses of life in Gaza where loved ones can’t check in with one another when cell phones can’t get charged, email and Skype calls are not predictable, and having back-up generators for hospitals is literally a matter of life and death.

As what was intended to be a five-year peace process crawls into its third decade, an entire generation of Palestinian children in Gaza who were born in the early 1990s are now turning 16, 18, 20 years old. Their generation has never known a time that didn’t require candles to be able to study after dark due to intermittent electricity.

Israel has the capacity to stop power interruptions today. Sympathetic nations have the influence to insist that Israel does this. If international leadership cannot agree that providing electricity to the people of Gaza — a very achievable goal — should be an immediate priority, how can we possibly imagine that the larger political issues can be resolved anytime soon?

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant at aim.ps in Ramallah and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio and blogs at ePalestine.com.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Scott

      Sam bahour, you are reputed to be a billionare. Why dont you build power plants for Gaza? You could do this instead of building palatial houses

      Reply to Comment
      • Mike

        Scott, wake up my boy
        Israel should end the illegal occupation of Palestine. Occupation is the root of all evil. so please again, wake up for God sake

        Reply to Comment
        • fred

          wake up? Palestine? Gaza is not run by Israel–they left–but by Hamas…Hamas, see charter, arming even after last Israel attack…they have charter saying death to Israel and to Jews…that is core of problem

          Reply to Comment
      • Peter Reilly

        Typical deflection from the real issue that cannot be denied: Israel has REPEATEDLY bombed the power station in Gaza, and Israel DELIBERATELY keeps Gaza short of fuel (along with other essentials). These are acts of collective punishment, which illegal under international law. It is also a fact that while Israel controls the borders and airspace, under international law it is an occupying power, and as an occupying power it has responsibility for the welfare of the population. It is clear to the world that Israel regards itself above international and humanitarian law.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Israel has a legal maritime blockade of Gaza and legally controls its own borders. See the Palmer Commission Reprot.

          Israel has not restricted fuel or other necessaries. It restricts dual use goods. Hamas and the PA have had spats which has resulted in non-delivery or fuel and medicines. Israel had nothing to do with these shortages. Stray Hamas rockets hit its own energy plant.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn8

      If electricity was the priority for the government of Gaza they would have long ago had uninterrupted electricity for their people. Instead they invest in missiles and tunnels while starting wars against Israel every couple of years. Then comes along a fool and asks why Israel isn’t rushing to provide assistance to a territory run by a government dedicated to Israel’s destruction. I don’t know. The world is such a mysterious place. I guess some things will never be explained.

      Reply to Comment
    3. rose

      Scott, your comment defines you.

      Reply to Comment
    4. lance

      A lot of misinformation in this article. 1) it’s disputed whether this plant was bombed by Israel or a misfired Arab rocket. Fact is it is likely the Gaza Arabs blew up their own plant. 2) Nobody owes anyone free electricity, and the Gaza Arabs do not pay their bills, so they should be thankful Israel provides them any power. 3) Arabs shoot rockets at their superior neighbor so they suffer the consequences of this.

      Reply to Comment
    5. bir

      According to the PA, Hamas has stolen $700 million from Gaza in recent years. I suspect that if they hadn’t stolen it the money would have gone to building rockets and tunnels, but even so, $700 million would get the Gazans a new power plant. Seriously, a 400 megawatt plant is supposed to cost about $800 million.

      I get it though, their priority is attacking Israel…

      Reply to Comment
      • Whiplash

        The Israeli economic magazine “Globes” reports that each of Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh, Mohammad Zahar, Meshal and Mazourk have become billionaires.

        Hamas has exceeded Arafat and his cronies when it comes to siphoning off monies from the Palestinian people.

        Therefore it is not surprising that the Palestinians can not provide for their own needs. Their leaders control billions of dollars which they do not use to pay their starving employees or to build out necessary infrastructure, such as additional energy plants, waste water or desalination plants.

        Palestinians think that international donors should pay for all of their needs. They do not even think that they have to collect and pay their energy bills. Israel is owed hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid energy and fuel bills.

        It is much easier for Palestinians and their supporters to blame Israel for every ill which afflicts them instead of taking responsibility for their own situation.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ray

          Hamas’ leaders, like the PA, are out for themselves. That’s no surprise.

          But do you really think that fact that Gaza has no capacity for foreign trade (thanks to the blockade) doesn’t factor in?

          Reply to Comment
          • bir

            Gaza has no capacity for foreign trade because funds that come in are used against Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            With the funds that come in, the economy would probably still be on par with North Korea. So it would be a drop in the ocean, even if embezzlement/corruption was ruled out. Name me one small country that practiced economic autarky (i.e. little to no foreign trade) in modern history that did not have a starving or impoverished population.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            Also, they have no capacity for foreign trade because you control their territorial waters and airspace.

            Reply to Comment
          • Whiplash

            They have no capacity because Gazans killed their capacity by attacks on Israelis and smuggling heavy weapons into Gaza to fire at Israel. Palestinians for decades had unfettered access to Israel for trade, shopping and vacations or to do the same in the West Bank or elsewhere. Attacks from Gaza forced Rabin and Peres to start the Gaza fence. Attacks on crossings into Israel and on the free trade economic zones on the border with Israel and Gaza brought an end to their trade zones. Further attacks brought an end to Gaza controlling its air and sea access.

            Palestinians were caught smuggling weapons on fishing boats like the Santorini and heavy weapon caches on the Karin A.

            The Palestinians loss their access to jobs in Israel over attacks. Hamas even attacked Ashod Port by hiding men and explosives in an export shipping container with the intention of blowing up the chemical farm in Ashod port to cause a Bopal like disaster. Guess what Palestinians suffered a loss of exporting rights.

            Then in 2005 Palestinians had an unparallelled opportunity to reverse the self inflicted harm on themselves. Israel pulled all of its people and army out of Gaza and agreed to establish a land corridor to connect Gaza to the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians used this opportunity to wage war and fire missiles at Israel. Guess what a blockade went into effect.

            Gaza today has another opportunity to give up its guns and rockets. Gaza can choose peace and build up an industrial capacity which will lead to opportunities for export trade.

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            “Gaza can choose peace”

            Peace with who? Netanyahu and Bennett? It would make more sense to try to make peace with ISIS.

            Reply to Comment
          • Whiplash

            Netanyahu has said a port, airport and access to sea are all possible if Gaza disarms. So Palestinians can continue to build their missile technology, as their missile test today suggests, or they can turn their weapons into ploughshares and reap the benefits of peace.

            For 66 years the application of violent force by Palestinians against Jews has not worked well for the Palestinians. Maybe, like the Catholics in Ireland, its is time to force their thugs to hand in their weapons and reach peace.

            Reply to Comment
          • “Gaza can choose peace”

            Danny, they mean unconditional surrender.

            Or better: life in Jordan!

            Reply to Comment
          • Whiplash

            The Japanese and Germans surrendered unconditionally to the allies and it worked well for them. The Jordanians surrendered to the Israelis in 1967 war and reached peace. Egypt accepted defeat and made peace. It is time for Palestinians to admit defeat and accept peace. It is better to have Israel as an ally than an enemy.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            And what would happen to Palestinians if they unconditionally surrendered to Israel? They might be shipped to Jordan or they might be donated land for a new state in the Sinai. But they sure as hell would not be keeping their ancestral lands on the West Bank. Doubtless the newly sited state in the Sinai desert would also be under the strict control of Israel.

            Your last sentence is quite true Whiplash, but which country apart from apartheid South Africa (which was ditched as soon as it became inconvenient) has ever had Israel as a true and loyal ally? Certainly not the US as the Pollard scandal demonstrated.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Richard in 1967 when Israel liberated the West Bank, not only did it not expel the Palestinian Arab population, it asked for Palestinians who had fled their homes to come back.

            Under Israeli administration, due to massive investments in the health, water and electricity the infant mortality rate among Palestinians plummeted while the average lifespan was extended by 10 years. Israel built schools and universities and permitted freedom of religion, speech and movement. Israel provided employment for up to 40% of the Palestinian work force. Israeli spending in the West Bank fueled the Palestinian economy. Palestinian incomes increased 2000% under Israeli administration.

            Even at the height of the second intifada Israel did not seek to expel the population of the West Bank and Gaza.

            So, if the Palestinians surrendered to the Israelis and accepted peace, they would have nothing to fear and all to gain.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            Source(s) for all your stats please Ped.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            “It would make more sense to try to make peace with ISIS.”

            Anyone would think you dislike ISIS. But we know you better, Danny, don’t we?

            Reply to Comment
      • bir

        You shouldn’t use a clown to make your point, lest you be perceived as a clown as well.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Whiplash

      Sam, there is so much wrong with your article, I do not know where to begin. Gaza’s power problems did not begin with Israel. When Israel liberated the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 only one section of Gaza City was supplied with reliable power by a power plant. The rest of Gaza had no reliable power supplies, with many localities being service in part by generators. The Israelis built out an electrical infrastructure and supplied the electricity from Israel.

      The PA and Hamas failed to maintain the and build infrastructure to meet the needs of a booming population in Gaza. In 2002 the international community built a 140 mega watt plant for Gaza. The Gazans were supposed to build electrical relay systems so the plant could be used to full capacity. Without the relay stations the plant cannot operate at full capacity. There is no way to deliver the extra power it can produce. Thus the plant is only operating at half capacity.

      Currently the Egyptians by a power line provide 27 megawatts, Israel by power line 170 MW and by fuel to the power plant 70 MW. Now if the Turks sail their ship up to Gaza, how are they going to deliver the power. If the Gazan electrical grid cannot currently handle another 70 MV from its own power plant, how is it going to handle 100 MW from a Turkish ship?

      BTW Israel did not bomb the Energy plant in 2014. Israel was not operating in the district when stray Hamas missiles hit it. Further, Israel has been willing to sell whatever supplies the PA has requested to Gaza. Squabbles between the PA and Hamas had been responsible for delays of fuel into Gaza. The PA was charging taxes on top of the cost of the oil and Hamas refused to pay same. Gaza in 2013 ran out of fuel because the PA would not take responsibility for payment without Hamas paying them. This had nothing to do with Israel. You will remember that Qatar had to step in to salvage the situation after winter storms inundated Gaza and Gazans were left swimming in their own sewage.

      The 2014 interruptions of electricity into Gaza can also be attributed to Hamas rockets knocking out electrical lines into and in Gaza.

      Gazans have not planned for their needs. They need more electricity in the future. If they are to build large desalination plants in Gaza, they need much larger supplies of energy by building a new plant. They need this because they have failed to properly manage their water resources and desperately need desalination plants which are energy hungry on a large scale which Gaza can not handle. In addition they need to upgrade waste handling facilities.

      Palestinians need to take responsibility for their own actions and their inactions.

      Reply to Comment
    7. “It’s all de Gamas’ fault and the Hazans who voted for it.

      Now every Hazan man, woman or child, must wait in the dark and do penintence for their support for de Gamas.”

      Yehudi from Meshuganah Outpost, Greater Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Gert

      *** Maybe, like the Catholics in Ireland, its is time to force their thugs to hand in their weapons and reach peace.***

      As if happened that way, you STUPID IDIOT!!!

      Reply to Comment
    9. Richard

      Answer: because Gaza has been at war with Israel for a long time. And because the Egyptian klepto-military regime doesn’t want to deal with Islamist wackjobs who want to export their delusions to the population of Egypt.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Brian

      Abu Mazen IS offering peace. It’s the Israelis who don’t want it. They ignore and scorn him. Show me the borders, Whiplash-Pedro. I wanna see a map with lines on it. Until then all your fulminations are just a lot of smoke blowing. Anything to avoid talking about actual borders. That’s your game. You draw borders and the cooperation of the Arabs and the outside world would be swift. But no, you won’t ever draw borders for reasons only an idiot can fail to understand. Not once. A thousand excuses instead. Borders. Until then, it’s all a stalling game. ALL of it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        “you won’t ever draw borders for reasons only an idiot can fail to understand. Not once.”

        Olmert had a large map drawn and Abbas studied it and jotted down a rough draft on PA stationary to show his colleagues. Olmert asked and Abbas agreed to come back the next day with his cartographer. Abbas never came back, he never answered Olmert’s golden proposal and never presented Olmert with a map.

        Abbas has not met Netanyahu and withdrew from the talks before borders could be settled. Netanyahu will not settle those borders until all security arrangements are made. One cannot be made without the other.

        Reply to Comment
      • Kiwi

        “Abu Mazen IS offering peace. It’s the Israelis who don’t want it”

        Black is white.

        White is black.

        Night is day.

        Day is night.

        Men are women.

        Women are men.

        Young is old.

        Old is young.

        And then there are flying elephants too.

        Or so Brian would have us believe. I have never met anyone who is able to look at the same thing/s that ordinary people look at but he constantly sees the opposite of what we see.

        Then again, he may be seeing it too. It just suits him to assert what he wants to assert.

        Reply to Comment
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