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Hamas-Fatah divide turns the lights out on Gazans

Deep distrust between Hamas and Fatah, which are due for another round of reconciliation talks next week, has led to a dispute over who should pay the electricity bill.

By Liam StackCorrespondent / October 28, 2010

Afflicted by war, blockade and political divisions, the Gaza Strip suffers from an acute crisis in its electric and sewage treatment utilities whose effects ripple into every corner of people's lives. Said El Yazji repairs a faulty gas-powered electric generator in Gaza City, which people rely on for power in the absence of a reliable electricity grid.

Liam Stack/MCT/Newscom

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Gaza City, Gaza

Renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are on the rocks, and failure to secure a deal with the two sides could prolong the region’s peace blackout.

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But for Gaza residents, a deep Palestinian divide – between Hamas and Fatah – not only prevents peace, but literally leaves them in the dark.

The streets here hum with hundreds of diesel-powered generators, the only line of defense against a war-damaged electric grid that plunges the territory into 8-hour-long rolling blackouts each day.

The lack of electricity is largely due to a protracted disagreement between Gaza’s Hamas government and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank over who will pay the territory’s electricity bill, estimated at more than 80 million shekels ($21 million) each month.

Both Hamas and Fatah accuse each other of corruption and of mishandling tax revenue and international aid, all to the detriment of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

“All the circumstances we live in are very hard,” says Ali Hisham, an unemployed resident walking past a long line of generators in Gaza City. “We hear a lot of information saying it is the Gaza side and a lot saying it is Ramallah, but I don’t know who to blame.”

How Gaza gets power – and who pays for it

The Gaza Strip needs between 280 and 300 megawatts of electricity each day, but struggles by with an average of just 167 megawatts, says Usama Dabbour, a spokesman for the Gaza Electrical Distribution Company (GEDCo,) which provides power to Gaza and collects utility payments from residents.

GEDCo oversees the three sources of power to Gaza: a local power plant, which uses fuel bought from an Israeli company, Dor Alon; the Israel Electric Corporation, which delivers power to the Gaza grid; and an Egyptian electric company.

From 2006 to November 2009 the European Union (EU) bought fuel for Gaza directly from Israel's Dor Alon, paying 50 million shekels ($13 million) per month. GEDCo says that bought enough fuel to power two turbines and produce 60 megawatts of power per day.

But since December 2009 the EU stopped paying directly for fuel as part of an overall cut in its financial support for Palestinian government institutions. Dabbour says the EU has earmarked 50 million shekels for Gaza fuel purchases that is now being channeled through the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and that Fatah officials there are diverting some of the cash to other purposes. “Ramallah has transferred the money for fuel to another budget line that does not involve fuel,” says Dabbour.

Both Ramallah and the European Union firmly deny his charge. “No funds were given directly to the PA to buy fuel from Dor Alon and therefore these could not be ‘diverted’ to any other ‘acquisitions,’” says Antonia Zafeiri, a spokesperson for the EU Mission to the UN Relief and Works Agency based in Jerusalem.

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