Opinion

How Gazans Manage to Keep Cool and Carry On

With all the money Gazans have invested in private solutions to combat electricity outages, a solar power plant could have been built for the entire Strip

A woman cooling off at a beach on a swelteringly hot day in Gaza City, July 7, 2017.
Adel Hana/AP

Aside from the beach, the only places to escape the heat and unbearable humidity in electricity-starved Gaza are the mosques. They are always air-conditioned, or at least almost always – even when there’s no power supply to the areas in which they’re located.

“I put on a mandil [headscarf] and go to religious lectures for women, just to escape the heat at home,” said one woman during Ramadan.

It’s a solution adopted by many. There are other individual solutions people use. This is the place to state that this is further proof that the Gazans are extraordinarily creative and resilient.

But my friend, R., pours cold water on my enthusiasm.

The mosques that are lit when the whole neighborhood is dark, and the refreshing air conditioning within, are a source of complaints in face-to-face conversations and on social media. It has also been debated by Gaza’s political factions. Where does the extra power for the mosques come from, everyone wonders, and who is paying for it?

Residents gathering around Al-Hassayna Mosque in Gaza during Ramadan, June 22, 2017.
Adel Hana/AP

The Palestinian Religious Affairs Ministry is one of the richest government ministries, with income from pilgrimages to Mecca and from real estate. So one must assume that it is paying the mosques’ extra electricity bills. But that doesn’t answer the question of where the power itself is actually coming from.

According to a Gaza City resident, the mosques are connected by underground cables to several different transformers. As a result, even if power is cut to one area, they continue to be supplied by another one.

But that only worked when the cycles of power outages and resumptions were eight hours, in different neighborhoods and at different times. Now, when for every three or four hours of power there are 20 hours without it, it could be that the mosques are also suffering a few hours without electricity.

Generators are presumably part of the mosques’ solution. Generators – smaller ones for households; large ones for institutions – have been a common solution for over 10 years. They’re expensive, noisy, polluting – but vital. Over the past year, and especially since the Gaza power plant was shuttered, generators have developed into a real business. Those with means and resourcefulness buy an industrial-size generator, put it in a lower-class neighborhood; then the neighbors hook up cables and pay the entrepreneur based on how many hours they use.

It costs at least three times as much as what they paid for power from the grid, but at least it allows people to charge up the batteries found in every household, which require six hours of charging to cautiously operate household appliances – light bulbs, so that the children can study; a television, perhaps a refrigerator, computers and fans; or the water pump that brings water from a cistern into the container on the roof.

Generators are good business for the entrepreneurs in crowded, lower-class neighborhoods. In the better neighborhoods, says R., as well as in many institutions, you are more and more likely to see solar panels: at the neighborhood gas station, at the universities, mosques, factories and greenhouses. Engineering students who could find no other work are now employed installing solar power systems.

So that’s a good thing, I said, seeking to find a ray of light in the darkness. Not really, R. replied. It’s all very expensive.

A solar battery for the home – one needs at least two – cost up to 2,000 shekels ($565). A set of solar panels for the roof – around $2,200. Every family is investing money it doesn’t have, or the little it does have, or is giving up something else that’s vital. Here, there’s no such thing as a one-year guarantee, R. said. Even if something malfunctions after two months the seller won’t take it back and replace it. An Israeli retaliatory bombing for a single Qassam rocket can destroy dozens of solar panels.

The Hamas administration encourages these individual solutions, hailing them as evidence of people’s resilience, says R. – but it’s like treating cancer with a cup of mint tea. The crisis is a political and social one, while the solution is privatized. Electricity production and supply have been privatized; the efforts and funds are decentralized; they are invested by individuals, albeit on a mass scale.

R. estimates that from what all the people in Gaza have invested and paid privately to lengthen the time they have power by two to three hours, a solar power plant could have been built to serve the entire Strip. (This is also true in Area C of the West Bank. Because Israel has refused to allow the poorest Palestinian villages to hook up to the water and electricity grids, they must pay for trucked water and generators several times what it would cost for proper utilities.)

This is an accurate metaphor for the Palestinian situation today: There’s a single source of the Palestinians’ problems – the oppressive Israeli regime – but in the absence of a single accepted leadership, in the absence of an agreed-upon strategy, coping relies on millions of individual schemes for survival and resistance using various types of efforts, energy and tricks.

By the way, the internet has become an especially vital commodity to the disconnected Gaza Strip, and internet providers are also being forced to use batteries to operate their regional centers. The situation today, when the cycles of power supply are less than six hours at a time, the batteries can never be fully charged and the internet connections get disrupted.

Those who live close enough to the Israeli border buy a cellular modem and connect to Israeli internet service providers. It’s a solution, but shhhhhhh! – it’s illegal and no one is supposed to know.