Severe shortages stymie life in Gaza

Groups petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to reopen Gaza crossings to supplies.

As the Palestinian conflict with Israel over a kidnapped soldier drags on, most crossings out of Gaza have been closed. Hardly a trickle of goods and people goes in or out. At least half the electricity has been knocked out, slowing sanitation, sewage treatment, refrigeration, communication, and transportation.

The wheels of everyday living in Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, are grinding to a halt so rapidly, particularly in the absence of sufficient power for everything from water pumps to cell-phone towers, that people like Faysal Shawa feel as if "we are going back to the way people lived 100 years ago."

Mr. Shawa, a businessman, says most people can forget about using a computer, checking e-mail, or sending a fax: Writing must be done by hand, or on a manual typewriter. Forget buying enough food – even basics like milk and meat – to last your family for a few days: Even if you can afford it, you won't be able to refrigerate it, since the power is off more often than it is on.

And if you're like him, a successful industrialist who can afford the high cost of a private generator, you only turn on the lights in the innermost chambers of your house, away from the windows, so as to not show off to your neighbors who are spending their evenings in the dark.

"This has become a real social issue," says Shawa, who runs several companies in construction, asphalt and pharmaceuticals. "My generator is soundproof.... But you can't run it all day .... You are always afraid that there won't be enough fuel in two or three days, because [the Israelis] are not letting enough in."

Shawa is one of many Palestinians whose affidavits were compiled and sent Tuesday to the Israeli Supreme Court, as part of a petition filed by six local human rights organizations demanding that the crossings in Gaza be opened "to allow for the steady and regular supply of fuel, food, medicine, and equipment, including spare parts needed to operate generators."

Since Israel bombed Gaza's primary power plant on June 27 – following the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier – Palestinians are redistributing what power remains and relying on generators. But that requires diesel fuel, and while Gaza needs about 1 million liters a day for the next two weeks in order to make up for severe shortages, only about 400,000 liters come through on days when the Nahal Oz passage is open. The passage is the only way to get fuel from outside, and it has intermittently been closed by the Israeli Army.

"There's no apparent justification for cutting off fuel supplies, and there is no impact on security on this issue because the transfer of fuel does not involve direct contact between Israelis and Palestinians," says Sari Bashi, a lawyer who directs Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization that represent Gazans in cases arguing for freedom of movement for goods and people.

"It looks a lot like collective punishment because there's no need to refuse to pump as much as Palestinians want and are prepared to buy," says Ms. Bashi, based in Tel Aviv. "The petition is based on the crisis' affect on the hospital system and sewage system, and the inability to get fuel through Nahal Oz. Our main concern now is the danger to the sewage and water system. If they don't get more [fuel] in the next three days, there is concern that untreated sewage will pollute the aquifer or spill into the streets."

Already, Bashi says, about 15 water wells have stopped pumping due to lack of fuel. And, since the bombing of the power plant last month, Gaza's water utility has been dumping 60,000 cubic meters of raw sewage into the sea each day, according to Gisha.

Shawa has had to lay off 65 employees and ask others to take leave without pay. The downturn, he says, has been happening for months, essentially since the Hamas government took the reins in March. The Islamic militant movement and political party has been shirked by international donors and investors due to its refusal to recognize Israel or foreswear the use of violence against it.

The net effect, says Shawa, is beginning to mirror what has been happening in Iraq: Those who can leave are trying to get out. Thirty to forty Palestinian factories, he says, have moved to Jordan or Egypt, he says, because of the inability to function here. Shawa, who is also an American citizen, is trying to send his wife and three children abroad for a while. He'd leave too, he says, but he's afraid Israel won't allow him to return.

"It's an economic war," says Shawa, "and our good people, the businessmen and the engineers and the others who can work elsewhere, are all leaving."

Asked about Israel's bombing of the Gaza power station this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told journalists that the purpose of that action – which was "approved by the political leadership" – was to prevent the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, from being transferred out of Gaza.

Many Palestinians view that kidnapping as inflicting the equivalent feeling suffered by Palestinian families who have loved ones in Israeli prisons. There are approximately 9,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

According to a recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, support for the Hamas government rose slightly, casting doubt on the theory that worsening conditions damage the popularity of Hamas. If elections were to be held today, the polling and media group found, the percentage of Palestinians who would vote for Hamas was 33.1 percent, up from 30.8 percent in June.

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