Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gaza Electricity Crisis Sparks Protests, Alarms Hamas

People protest against Hamas because of chronic power cuts, in Jabaliya refugee camp located in northern Gaza Strip, Palestine, 12 January 2017. Photo AP

For months, the almost two million residents of the Gaza Strip have received just four hours of power per day. Popular anger over the shortages erupted in January 2017 in widespread protests. In a rare display of defiance against Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory, thousands of people took to the streets to demand an end to the cuts.

The protests initially broke out in al-Nuseirat, in the middle of Gaza, but soon spread north to Jabaliya and south to Rafah and Khan Yunis. Protestors in Jabaliya marched towards the headquarters of the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company (GEDCo), chanting slogans such as, “No voice is louder than the voice of the oppressed masses… we want electricity,” and, “The most basic rights… lighting homes.” Outside the electricity company, they hurled stones as police fired shots into the air to break up the crowd.

The protests were some of the largest unauthorized demonstrations in Gaza since Hamas came to power in 2006, and reflect the growing misery for many residents in the enclave. This has been compounded by divisions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as well as the decade-long economic sanctions and restrictions on movement imposed by Israel and more recently by Egypt. Unemployment currently stands at 46 per cent, with young people particularly hard hit. Following three wars with Israel, housing is in short supply and crime and radicalism are on the rise.

Only the bare minimum of power and clean water reaches the territory, and the quantities of fuel have been reduced as well. A United Nations report has warned that Gaza may become uninhabitable by 2020.

The electricity crisis started when Israeli warplanes bombed the Gaza power plant in June 2006, in retaliation for the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on the Egyptian border.  The plant used to feed the grid in Gaza with approximately 140 megawatts (MW) of power. The Israeli Line supplied a further 120MW, and the Egyptian Line approximately 35MW. These quantities were enough to meet Gaza’s needs at the time. After the repair of two of the plant’s four generators, the plant produced approximately 65MW, bringing Gaza’s total power supply to approximately 220MW.

Gaza’s current power needs are 400MW per day in normal circumstances and 450MW at peak times, for instance when people use air conditioners during the summer or heaters during the winter. Due to the increasing demand in the last ten years, but few increases in supply, the crisis has worsened. As a result, an agreement was made to distribute the available power to residents for a continuous eight hours followed by eight hours of power cuts. This distribution mechanism has been in place for several years. In recent months, however, cold weather and the additional use of electric appliances for heating purposes have seen the average number of supply hours drop to four, followed by 12 hours of power cuts.

In addition to the technical and financial problems, the electricity crisis in Gaza is political. Israel will only supply Gaza with an additional high-voltage electricity line, known as Line 161, if the agreement is signed by the PA, not Hamas, and a number of guarantees for paying the monthly electricity bill are provided. However, the PA is reluctant to make such an agreement because it wants Palestinians in Gaza to revolt against Hamas and overthrow the movement. Hamas, meanwhile, has taken over the management of GEDCo and the Palestinian Energy Authority, and refuses to hand over the electricity portfolio to the PA because it wants to remain part of the Palestinian political and administrative system.

Other factors are aggravating the electricity crisis as well. More than 50 per cent of Gazans do not pay their electricity bills. Hamas has also been accused of turning a blind eye to the ministries, government and security agencies and mosques that fail to pay their electricity bills. Moreover, generating one kilowatt (kW) of power in Gaza costs almost two and a half times more than importing it from Israel. The Palestinian Energy Authority says that the higher cost is due to the taxes imposed on power supplies, especially the so-called ‘blue’ tax on the fuel for the Gaza power plant. In fact, the government in Ramallah has exempted the Gaza power plant from the blue tax for years.[10]

However, many large companies that have shares in GEDCo, including the Consolidated Subcontractors Company (CCC), the Arab Bank, the Palestine Development and Investment Company (PADICO) and the Palestinian Commercial Services Companybenefit from keeping the power plant operational instead of buying additional power from Israel. This raises the question of how GEDCo’s annual profits can exceed $13 million, when more than 50 per cent of households do not pay their bills and the territory is experiencing a crippling lack of supply.

Gazans are angry mainly because they feel that political wrangling between the PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, coupled with the Israeli blockage, are making their lives unbearable. The protests expressed their rejection of the status quo and sent a strong message to Hamas that the current situation is untenable.

Hamas appears to have taken note. Since the protests, it has scrambled to find quick solutions to the electricity crisis, announcing that it would hand over the electricity portfolio to the PA. The PA immediately rejected the proposal, clearly hoping that any prolonged demonstrations will achieve the greater goal of overthrowing Hamas. However, Hamas intensified its efforts and achieved a partial solution. Following a meeting between Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar agreed to provide the Gaza power plant with $12 million to buy the necessary fuel and return the electricity distribution to the previous eight-hour cycles for the next three months.

There is no doubt that Hamas has felt the people’s anger and frustration, and that a long-term resolution to the electricity crisis can only be found when all the political portfolios are addressed together. Hamas also knows that it only has three options. The first option is to reconcile with the Fatah movement. This will never happen while Mahmoud Abbas is president because he blames Hamas for obstructing him politically.

The second option is to reach an agreement with Israel, for which Hamas would have to recognize the State of Israel, as Fatah did. This would undermine Hamas’s popular support and provoke accusations of coordinating with Israel on security, which is exactly what Hamas has always accused Fatah and the PA of doing.

The third option is to implicitly recognize the legitimacy of the military Egyptian regime and sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with which it has long been associated both ideologically and practically. The first indirect recognition of the Egyptian regime came when Haniyeh met the Egyptian intelligence director during a visit to Cairo on 25 January 2017. Following the meeting, unconfirmed reports suggested that the movement of Palestinians through the Rafah Border Crossing between Gaza and Egypt would improve, and that Egypt would build a new power plan funded by the United Arab Emirates to meet Gaza’s electricity needs.

Of all the options, the third seems to offer the most chance of success, and could provide Hamas with a solution to the electricity crisis with the fewest political losses.

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