We must discuss the responsibility of the two Palestinian “governments” for leaving the Gaza Strip in the dark. This article is not meant to absolve Israel of responsibility for the crisis and the chain of catastrophic, horrific disasters it is now creating and will create in the future. Israel is the de facto ruler in the Strip. The siege Israel is imposing on Gaza has led to unprecedented levels of poverty in the coastal enclave. Israel bombed and destroyed the power plant’s transformers and fuel tanks, and it restricts the entry of construction and other raw materials that are required for the speedy rehabilitation and repair of the electricity infrastructure, including the power station.
But we must not absolve the two rival Palestinian leaderships, who are clashing with each other cynically and brutally, at the expense of their people in Gaza. In this repulsive spat, electricity is a particularly complex issue. Here are some of the main problems:
Collection of accounts: Gaza owes the Palestinian Finance Ministry in Ramallah a fortune for unpaid electricity bills. The Israeli siege has left most Gazan residents impoverished, with about 80 percent of them dependent on aid. Many simply cannot pay. But there are others who jump on the bandwagon and don’t pay: official (Hamas) institutions; municipalities; mosques; and probably some businesses that have survived the siege.
Ramallah is not the rich uncle that can absorb everything. The restrictions on movement and development imposed by Israel on the West Bank greatly constrict the economy there. When they want to, the Hamas authorities know full well how to collect multiple taxes from their residents. Why aren’t they trying harder to collect money for electricity, which has to be transferred to the treasury in Ramallah?
Taxation: The Palestinian Authority is supposed to transfer the diesel fuel needed to operate the private power plant in Gaza, but it doesn’t grant a full tax exemption on the fuel, as it previously promised. Gazans say the poverty there justifies a full tax exemption. The Hamas authorities claim the revenues go to the treasury in Ramallah.
The Ramallah government says it devotes a large percentage of its budget to salaries and health and welfare services in Gaza. A large part of its development budget, which is based on (fewer and fewer) international donations, is also allocated to Gaza. In Gaza, they say the tax revenues and customs duties collected by Israel for goods imported into the Strip are transferred to the treasury in Ramallah anyway. The PA says Hamas collects additional taxes from the merchants and importers.
It is worth noting that in Gaza, for several years electricity bills have been deducted at source from the salaries of officials of the Ramallah public sector who are located in Gaza. (A reminder: They receive a salary on condition that they don’t work – the fatal mistake made by PA President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, in a failed attempt, the first of many, to bring down the Hamas government.)
Transparency: Neither side provides accurate and reliable data on the amount of taxes and payments they collect, even though independent observers from Palestinian civil society have repeatedly asked for this.
Swords instead of light: Hamas has money (from Iran) for arms but not for electricity. Just like Israel has money for settlements and submarines, but not for the health system and decent allowances for the disabled and the elderly. The arming of Hamas is a good hallucinogen for accumulating political power, but it will never come close to the sophistication and lethality of Israeli armaments.
Weapons acquisition is a sacred cow for us and for some Palestinians – especially those who are not at risk of death or destruction from Israeli attacks on Gaza, who live in the Palestinian diaspora or the West Bank, and who admire Hamas for its “resistance” (the armed struggle).
The Oslo legacy and neoliberalism: The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat advocated the privatization of services to the public and linking up with private, profit-oriented companies, on the assumption that only they could build the Palestinian state. According to a contract with the private company that operates the power plant in Gaza, the PA must pay it $2.5 million a month regardless of electricity output. There is no state, but the PA must abide by the contract regardless. Attempts to change it were unsuccessful.
Failure to learn from experience: Abbas and Hussein al-Sheikh (a member of the Fatah Central Committee and the minister for civil affairs, who liaises with the Israeli coordinator of government activities in the territories) rushed to the Israeli occupier and asked it to increase the oppression and pressure on Gaza, and to exacerbate its residents’ suffering. In doing so, they aren’t causing the public to hate Hamas but only themselves.
Internalizing the Israeli attitude: Israel doesn’t treat the Palestinians as people with rights in their homeland and as an occupied population for whose welfare it is responsible, but as consumers of its water and electricity companies and its hospitals. When Abbas and Sheikh rushed to Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai (the coordinator of government activities in the territories) and requested a cut in Gaza’s electricity supply, they reinforced the false concept of “business ties” between the two sides.
Ramallah doesn’t give a damn about Gaza: It’s easy for its organizations and residents to criticize Israel for suddenly “obeying” Abbas and cutting the electricity supply (will Israel obey Abbas when he tells it not to deduct the payments for Palestinian prisoners?). Where are the demonstrations of solidarity with Gaza, and the protests against the PA’s request that Israel cut Gaza’s electricity? Are they reserved only for wars when Israel kills Gazans in their thousands?
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