The population of the Gaza Strip is facing an acute cooking gas shortage this winter, after a unilateral Israeli decision in October to permanently close the sole oil and gas terminal between the coastal Palestinian territory and the Jewish state.
The Nahal Oz crossing has been shut down for "security reasons," an official with the Israeli coordination office for the Gaza Strip said, adding that it will only act as "a backup" when the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south is too congested.
Nahal Oz, located in Gaza's north and just east of Gaza City, has been the site or in the vicinity of a number of deadly attacks carried out by Palestinian militants. The terminal itself is visibly damaged from a mortar attack in 2008.
But Kerem Shalom does not have the proper infrastructure to meet the territory's cooking gas needs, local businessmen say. The move has had a significant impact across the territory, forcing bakeries to either close or shift to other fuel sources, compelling hospitals to suspend cooking and laundry services, and threatening families' abilities to cook and heat their homes as winter closes in.
"At Kerem Shalom, there is no infrastructure [for gas transport], and only limited amounts are allowed in," says Amr Hamad, executive manager of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, a private sector organization. "Cooking gas is so important to Gaza right now," he continues, "particularly with the siege – we rely on it totally."
Less than 20 percent of needed supplies
After the crossing's closure, just over 1,600 tons were transferred in October, and less than 1,000 in November, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gaza.
Only 3 percent of Gaza's gas needs were met in the second week of November, and 17 percent in the third, the UN body says.
Israel says it will keep the Nahal Oz crossing open one day a week, if the security situation allows it – down from seven days a week, security permitting. Local media have reported that Israel will transfer the gas infrastructure to the Kerem Shalom crossing, but the Israeli official would not confirm that and the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights says that process has not begun.
Israel has kept Gaza under a tight economic blockade since a short but bloody inter-Palestinian war two years ago left the Islamist Hamas, a bitter enemy of Israel, in control of the territory. Along with cement, steel, and other construction materials, Israel substantially reduced the amount of gas and fuel it transfers into the Gaza Strip as part of the blockade.
But until now, Gaza's cooking gas shortages have been temporary. The move to close the Nahal Oz crossing more or less permanently is unprecedented, gas station owners say.
"We have never seen this before," says Mahmoud Khozendar, the vice chair of the gas station owners association. "What the Israelis allow in through Kerem Shalom, it is not enough; it is not even close to enough."
Rise in violence
The move comes amid a recent rise in tit-for-tat violence between the Israeli army and Palestinian militants over the past two months. November saw a series of Israeli air strikes against smuggling tunnels and other targets in response to Palestinian rocket fire, resulting in at least three fatalities.
The Gaza-based Al-Qaeda-style militant group Jund Ansar Allah in September claimed a rocket attack on Israel's Nahal Oz military base located at the crossing. Just last week, the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a leftist militant organization, also claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on the crossing.