Longer blackouts for Gaza, as politicians quarrel

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—An escalating dispute between the rival Palestinian governments over who should pay Gaza’s electricity bill has caused some of the worst power cuts here in years, leaving Gazans stewing in sweltering heat and cursing politicians of all stripes.

Gazans are used to daily blackouts, especially since Israel bombed the territory’s power plant four years ago following the capture of an Israeli soldier by Gaza militants. However, the latest wrangling between the strip’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers and the Western-backed government in the West Bank has kept Gaza without power for up to 16 hours a day for the past week.

The argument highlights the rancor between the adversaries, who have been on a collision course since Hamas wrested Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. It raises questions about whether they can ever reconcile or find enough common ground to work with the international community to get Gaza’s borders opened after three years of blockade by Israel and Egypt.

“Each government is trying to make the other look bad,” said Khalil Shahin, a researcher at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. “The problem is that civilians are paying the cost.”

The dispute over electricity began in November, when the European Union stopped paying $12 million a month for fuel for Gaza’s power plant, which provides about one-third of Gaza’s electricity, with most of the rest coming from Israel and a small amount from

Egypt.

This left Abbas’ Palestinian Authority to find a way to cover the fuel costs, since the Israeli suppliers won’t deal directly with the internationally shunned Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority receives hundreds of millions in foreign aid each year, but is struggling from month to month to meet expenses, including in Gaza. Even after the Hamas takeover, it continued to pay for Gaza’s electricity from Israel and Egypt.

Faced with the new fuel bill for the power plant, the Abbas government asked Hamas to chip in since it collects around $4 million a month from Gaza’s electricity customers.

Since then, the two sides have been arguing over contributions.

The Palestinian Authority, which says it has been paying 95 percent of Gaza’s overall electricity costs and has the financial records to prove it, wants Hamas eventually to bump up its share to 25 percent.

Hamas says it has contributed more than what the West Bank government acknowledges, and that it cannot afford more because many Gaza consumers don’t pay their bills, either because they’re broke or because they got used to free power during the last decade of political turmoil.

As a result, the power plant has been at repeated risk of shutting down.

The Palestinian Authority says it will only pay for a fixed amount of fuel at the beginning of each month and expects Hamas to cover the remainder. If the Gaza government doesn’t pay, the plant has to shut down.

That’s what happened a week ago, translating into intervals of 12 hours of blackouts, followed by six hours of power for most Gazans.

The weeklong shutdown was the longest since the fuel dispute began, but the power plant resumed limited operations Thursday, because it’s the beginning of the month, officials said.

Gaza has been short of electricity for years because demand is growing. Border closures and conflict with Israel have thwarted repairs and prevented the development of new sources of power.

When the power plant shuts down, Gaza gets only the electricity that comes from Israel and Egypt—which amounts to 40 percent of its needs, said Suhail Skeik, head of Gaza’s electricity company.

Extended blackouts also harm water supplies and sewage treatment since both rely on electric pumps, he said.

Many Gazans have bought small generators, but the machines break down quickly. Waiting for his generator to get fixed in a repair shop, 58-year-old driver Ayoub Ayoubi said he’s thinking of buying a second one since his wife has asthma and needs to keep her medication cool.

In Gaza City’s main market, generators the size of a lawn mowers were set up on the sidewalk outside each stall, and their din almost drowned out the noise of traffic.

Normally, a large privately owned generator supplies the market during blackouts, for a daily payment of $5 from each merchant, but it too had broken down. Traders used the smaller models to turn on the lights and spin ceiling fans.

Vendors seemed split over whom to blame.

Clothing merchant Mohammed Shurafa, 24, said the Gaza government should pay up. “I pay my electricity bill, so they (Hamas) should pay the fuel bill,” he said.

Shurafa said he hasn’t showered in three days because power cuts mean pumps don’t operate to deliver water to his 10th floor apartment. During long outages, he only buys enough food for a day since he can’t refrigerate perishables.

His cousin Mohammed, 22, who sells clothes in a nearby stall, said he believes the West Bank government is using the fuel payments to squeeze Hamas. “They are tightening the blockade to bring down Hamas,” he said.

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