Israel started cutting electricity to the Gaza Strip this week in a move that could translate to 21-hour blackouts and intensify the coastal enclave’s already dire humanitarian crisis in the brutal heat of summer.
In theory, the controversial move is meant to ramp up pressure on Hamas and amplify Israel’s support of Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the nationalist Fatah movement and president of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), as he seeks to reassert his authority in the Gaza Strip, which he lost control of over a decade ago.
But in intensifying its partnership with Abbas to squeeze out Hamas, the Israeli government now risks exacerbating an already-dire humanitarian situation on its doorstep. The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza has warned that more power cuts could mean the closure of 40 operating rooms, 50 medical laboratories, and 10 blood banks, as well as cuts to Gaza’s water supply.
Translation: a full-blown humanitarian crisis that analysts warn could ignite an already combustible situation by further aggravating Gaza residents and hardening the divide between the two leading Palestinian factions.
“Israel and the PA are very much invested in the rationale of the [Israeli-imposed] blockade which started in 2007, which is, the more pressure you put on Hamas the more likely it is going to concede, or weaken, or admit defeat and allow the PA to come back into Gaza,” said Tareq Baconi, author of the forthcoming book “Hamas: The Politics of Resistance.” “That’s animating Israel’s acquiescence to Abbas’ demand.”
“A zero-sum game between Hamas and Fatah”
The Abbas-requested electricity cuts represent a sharp escalation in the decade-long power struggle between Fatah and the Islamist movement Hamas over who best represents the Palestinian people as they aim to end Israeli occupation and establish their own state. The bitter rift dates back to 2006, when Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections, despite overwhelming international support for the latter. In 2007, Fatah attempted to wrest control of the government from Hamas with force, but Hamas ended up routing pro-Fatah forces in Gaza.
The West Bank and Gaza have since represented the bitter polarities of the fight for supremacy in the Palestinian leadership struggle, though control over both territories ultimately rests with Israel, the occupying power.
“There is a zero-sum game between Hamas and Fatah. There is no visible chance for reconciliation,” said Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian Desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs. “And in the absence of reconciliation, there is no chance the PA will be in the Gaza Strip, the most significant political asset Hamas has.”
But the power crisis did not start with the Israeli Cabinet’s decision in mid-June to cut its electricity supply, which makes up 30 percent of Gaza’s total power needs. The flow of electricity to Gaza — which relies on Egypt, Gaza’s own power plant, and Israel’s supply — was already inadequate for the population’s power needs.
“How many babies need to die for people to say this is unacceptable?”
Palestinians in Gaza need 400 megawatts a day but normally receive only 208.
With this amount of electricity, residents in Gaza typically receive eight hours of electricity before eight hours of power cuts. This latest round of cut-offs promises to make the power situation worse, and it’s all the more dangerous because one key source of electricity was recently taken out of commission.
In April, Gaza’s sole power plant, which was already running below full capacity thanks to Israeli bombing raids and outstanding repairs, shut down because donated fuel supplies were exhausted. Its failure set off another round of recriminations between the two warring Palestinian factions: Gaza’s Hamas-run Energy Authority said it would not purchase more supply unless the Palestinian Authority lifts taxes on fuel, which Hamas officials say make operating the power plant too expensive.
Hardship in the heat of summer
The shutdown of the power plant has already brought increased hardship for Gaza’s citizens.
“I have a child. Most of the time he starts to cry because of the heat. I cannot switch on the fan,” Mosab Mostafa, an English teacher in Gaza, told VICE News. Since April, he’s had power for four hours a day, followed by 12 hour shut-offs, and then another four hours of electricity.
“We use electricity to pump water to the tank on the roof the house. No electricity means no water. So last week, I had no water in the tanks, and I had to use buckets of water in order to fill the tanks [to get water for showers and laundry],” Mostafa added.
But the consequences of the increased power cuts go beyond making daily activities tougher. Human rights experts are warning that the crisis could turn deadly, especially for those who rely on hospitals.
“It’s hard to run a household in these conditions, let alone hospitals where children and others are connected to life-saving equipment that depends on steady power supply,” said Shai Grunberg, the spokesperson for Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that focuses on Gaza. “Now the situation is obviously much worse and getting worse by the day with fewer hours of power and longer blackouts. How many babies need to die for people to say this is unacceptable?”
The April shutdown of the power plant came after Abbas decided to cut the salaries of public employees working in Gaza — another move meant to pressure Hamas. Then Abbas requested that Israel reduce Gaza’s electricity supply, saying the Palestinian Authority no longer wanted Israel to fully dock money it collects on the authority’s behalf and use that money for what Gaza owes Israel for electricity. (Israel, which considers Hamas a rogue terrorist group, does not deal with the movement on matters of governance; it uses the PA as a go-between.) Finally, on June 12, the Israeli cabinet acquiesced to Abbas’ requests, leading to the current predicament.
In fully throwing in its lot with Abbas, Israeli officials are taking the risk that cutting electricity won’t escalate violence between Hamas and Israel, said Nathan Thrall, the senior Israel/Palestine analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“They decided they could weaken Hamas without risking a new war because Hamas’ situation is so bad that it’s very unlikely to go in a new war and it will do all it can to avoid a new war, especially with the crisis in [Hamas-allied] Qatar,” said Thrall.
Egypt has also stepped in to defuse the potentially explosive situation. On Wednesday, Egyptian authorities trucked in emergency fuel for Gaza’s power plant to get it working again. Analysts said that the move was likely the result of Hamas-Egypt negotiations brokered by Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan, who is in talks with the Islamist movement about joining forces–an alliance that would come at the expense of Abbas.
But Gisha’s Grunberg said gestures like the Egyptian fuel would only be a stopgap measure.
“Even if the power plant resumes operation, the demand for electricity in Gaza is double what is supplied to the Strip by Israel, Egypt, and Gaza’s sole power plant,” she told VICE News. “So there is a lot to make up for. It may alleviate the current situation, but it won’t solve the electricity crisis.”