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.

Liam Stack/MCT/Newscom
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.

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.

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.

A spokesman for the Fatah government in Ramallah says that much of Gaza's fuel is paid for by the PA and Dor Alon confirmed that payment for fuel for Gaza comes from the PA.

Nevertheless, the dispute illustrates the deep mistrust between the Fatah-dominated PA and Hamas, which has run Gaza since ousting Fatah in 2007.

Why Gaza can't increase its own power output

The power plant has lacked sufficient fuel to power its four turbines this year, often running only one. During the summer, when temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the plant shut down completely at least twice, plunging Gaza residents into 12 to 16-hour rolling blackouts for eight days.

Distribution over Gaza's creaky grid is another problem. “The lines we have now are at max capacity, so to increase supply we would need to build more lines,” Dabbour says. Doing that is a practical impossibility given the hostilities between Israel, Egypt, and the Hamas government and the difficulty of importing construction materials, which are banned under a 3-year-old Israeli economic blockade on Gaza that is supported by Egypt.

“The only way we can really increase is to go through the power plant,” he says. “But we need fuel to run the turbines.”

Lax bill collection in Hamas-run Gaza

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the PA in Ramallah, says that the PA has been paying the entire monthly bill for the Israeli and Egyptian electricity that is piped into Gaza (the majority of Gaza’s electricity supply), at a cost of 40 million shekels, plus “most, if not all” of the fuel from Dor Alon.

The Israel Electric Corporation said that payment for the electricity it supplies to the Gaza Strip – about 76,000 megawatts a month at a cost of 26 million shekels a month – comes from the PA via the Israeli Ministry of Finance.

Altogether Mr. Khatib says that Gaza’s monthly bill is more than 80 million shekels, but that due to lax bill collection the Gaza government pays almost none of that.

“Through bill collection the government of Gaza contributes just 5 percent to this total,” says Mr. Khatib by phone. “It makes no sense.”

He says that few if any of Gaza’s government ministries and high-ranking Hamas leaders pay for their power, and argues that Hamas should start by collecting bills from its own civil servants as well as those still receiving paychecks in Gaza from the Ramallah-based PA.

Officials at GEDCo admit they have a problem: each month they distribute 40 to 45 million shekels of power but only collect 18 to 20 million shekels in payment. In the past year their bill collection has stepped up considerably: in 2009 they collected from 25 percent of customers, but in 2010 that figure has jumped to 40 percent.

Nevertheless, Dabbour says that collecting much more than that is “impossible” due to Gaza’s widespread poverty and the company’s own poor service.

“If we knock the door to a customer’s house and say, ‘We need you to pay your bill,’ they will say back, ‘Give me good services, we have no services,’” says Dabbour. “People cannot pay.”

Gazans deeply affected, but determined

The effects of Gaza’s electricity shortage affect every part of life. Generators are expensive and dangerous; Gaza’s Health Ministry says 150 people have died in generator accidents in the past few years.

Without reliable electricity farmers cannot pump water from wells, sewage cannot be treated, and sensitive hospital equipment is damaged.

“It affects me so much,” says Nour Harazeen, a 20-year-old university student who studied for recent exams by candlelight. “I got an A+ though, so in Gaza you just get used to it. Nothing stops us.”

Correspondent Daniella Cheslow contributed from Jerusalem.

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