More Annoying Than a Vuvuzela

Israel's restrictions on diesel oil and the rivalry between the Palestinian factions are causing the electricity cuts in Gaza.

The vuvuzelas apparently annoy Gazans who watch the soccer World Cup less than their brothers in the West Bank - that's simply because the noise of the generators disturbs them more.

Haaretz's sources estimate cautiously that the number of mobile generators in Gaza increased in the run-up to the World Cup. Coffee shops and clubs that did not yet have one hurried to buy a generator and procure diesel oil from Egypt. The number of beach cafes that set up a generator and bought a large flat-screen TV also increased. This is yet another way to forget the prolonged initiated electricity outages that sometimes last up to 16 hours a day.

So the World Cup problem has been solved there. But in all other areas the damage is immense. Hospitals, for example. Thirty seconds to two minutes can elapse from the moment the electricity stops until the generator starts operating. These are very precious moments for someone undergoing an operation or dialysis; for someone in an incubator or connected to an iron lung.

Or for the wastewater treatment plant that requires 14 hours of uninterrupted electricity supply to complete its work. And we have not yet mentioned the students studying for the matriculation exams or the electrical appliances that break down, the high cost and the pollution.

The demand for generators that are brought into the Strip via the tunnels has soared since December 2009. At the same time, the number of fatal accidents caused by incorrect handling of the generators or by their low quality has also increased: 27 people have been killed, including six children, the Health Ministry in Gaza reported.

When the reason for the electricity outages is the Israeli government's policies, it's easy to carry out a journalistic investigation.

For example, on June 28, 2006, the air force bombed the Gaza power station and destroyed its six transformers. The quality of the transformers that replaced them is low. Israel is indeed allowing lots of mangoes into Gaza, and even lychees adorn some of the shops in the Rimal quarter - for NIS 60 per kilo, an unreal price even for many Israelis.

But Israel is making it hard to bring in the spare electrical parts the power station needs, and it restricts the amount of industrial fuel the Palestinians are permitted to buy for the station. Since October 2008, this is no more than 2.2 million liters per week, which generate some 65 megawatts, 95 megawatts fewer than the original objective fixed for the station.

The Strip requires 280 megawatts for its electricity supply. The electricity that the Palestinian Authority buys at full price from Israel accounts for some 120 megawatts. Another 17 megawatts are supplied by Egypt, so at least around 30 percent of Gaza's needs are not met. The chronic deficit means chronic outages.

When the reason is not merely Israel but also the rivalries between the two Palestinian leaderships, everything becomes more complicated and there is a great danger of falling into the trap of each side's propaganda.

Fortunately there are organizations like the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Oxfam, Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and the UN office for coordinating humanitarian affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories. These organizations have sent investigators to try to examine the Rashomon-like imbroglio around the supply of energy to the Gaza power station. The organizations basically say, "Hey guys, you in Gaza, you in Ramallah, think about the people you claim to represent and serve."

When the private power station was set up in Gaza, a contract was signed with the PA that obliges it to supply its industrial fuel. Since June 2006, the European Union has been paying every month for the diesel oil that Israel allows the station to receive. In November 2009, the PA went back to paying for it; since then the amount of diesel reaching the station dwindled and eventually ran out. On June 25, the station stopped operating. The week before, 596,800 liters were sent there - a little more than one-quarter of what Israel allows in.

Gaza blackout
Amira Hass

The Gaza Electricity Distribution Company is responsible for distributing the electricity that is supplied by the various sources, and for regulating the cuts. It is also responsible for collecting payments. The Ramallah government claims that the money collected does not reach its destination - the treasury in Ramallah - which also has the onus of paying Israel and Egypt. In other words, the Hamas government uses people's suffering for political reasons.

In Gaza they hotly deny this (and show bank transfers that prove that the payments were made in full ), but they admit that the collection of dues is very inadequate. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights dared to criticize the custom that has become rooted over the years - "Anyway the Europeans pay, so why should we pay?"

It's true that many can't afford to pay, but there are also many consumers, including government and non-government offices and commercial firms, the center declares. There are senior public officials and others who do not bother to pay. Thus a debt has accumulated in Gaza over the past few years of some NIS 2.3 billion in electricity arrears that is subsidized by Ramallah.

So Ramallah decided it would not allow the debt to grow at its expense. In the West Bank too, it improved the collection of payments for utilities, but there was no problem of frequent mass electricity outages there. Even opponents of Hamas in the Gaza Strip say the PA simply does not care about the Gazans so they dare to cut them off from the electricity supply.

Meanwhile, on June 30, 94,000 liters were sent to Gaza, and on the following day 230,000 liters. Two bank transfers were made from Gaza to Ramallah. In Gaza, they say they will improve collection, but still the power station is working at less than half its production capacity. On the other hand, the outages have now become "normal" again - between six and 12 hours every day.