Gaza on the brink
Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis as a result of electricity blackouts and cuts to fuel supplies, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Contrary to his usual custom, Magid Abu Samha has stopped buying a week's supply of fruits and vegetables for his eight-member family. The university lecturer from Birkat Al-Wizz west of the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza is afraid they will rot before the week is out due to the constant electricity cuts that sometimes last for 16 hours a day and make refrigerators useless.
Electricity blackouts are only one of the innumerable hardships that more than a million Palestinians in Gaza are forced to endure.
In order to accommodate themselves to them, people have had to alter many aspects of their daily lives, with some families changing their sleep patterns to coincide with the cuts and school and university students staying awake all hours to take advantage of the few hours when their homes are connected to the mains.
The cuts have also hit commercial establishments hard, with stores being unable to display their wares and frozen goods vanishing from the market because they cannot be kept under such conditions.
However, even if Gazans have managed to adjust in various ways to the blackouts in their daily lives, the cuts have also exposed them to more serious risks and dangers.
Gaza was plunged into darkness 10 days ago when the only power station in the Strip ground to a halt due to a lack of fuel.
According to Ahmed Abul-Omrein, director of information in the Gaza Energy Department, talks with Egypt over providing the fuel needed to operate the plant produced "only promises", resulting in the blackout.
Should the closure of the plant continue, it will lead to a 70 per cent deficit in Gaza's electricity needs, as only 30 per cent of the electricity in Gaza is supplied from Egypt and Israel.
Unless fuel supplies for the Gaza plant are forthcoming, blackouts will continue for up to 18 hours a day, with available electricity being distributed across the Strip during the six remaining hours.
To make matters worse, privately owned generating stations have nearly run out of the type of fuel needed to operate the small electricity generators that families use during blackouts.
The crisis has also struck in the midst of a cold winter when the electricity demand increases.
Many Gazans have reverted to using kerosene burners, and the rise in demand for these, commonly used before the introduction of electricity into the Strip in the early 1980s, has caused a rise in demand for kerosene, which has been rapidly disappearing from the market.
As result, the use of kerosene burners has been restricted for essential purposes only, such as cooking family meals.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza has warned that the lives of hospital patients are at risk due to the electricity shortages.
Director of media relations Ashraf Al-Qudra said that the lives of 80 per cent of patients were in peril, including 100 infants in incubators and 404 patients whose treatment uses equipment requiring a constant electricity supply.
Al-Qudra said that 72 per cent of hospital fuel reserves had been depleted and that they were on the verge of total paralysis. He urged all the Palestinian factions to act quickly to save the lives of patients whose lives were at risk, also appealing to Egypt for electricity supplies.
Hospitals are not the only worry, since municipal leaders in Gaza have said that more than 200 wells, 40 wastewater pumps, four wastewater treatment plants, and 10 large and dozens of small water purification stations are at risk of grinding to a halt should the crisis continue, as will hundreds of refuse collection machines.
The municipal leaders said that Gaza was on the brink of a "humanitarian crisis", warning that essential health and environmental services, public utilities, wastewater disposal facilities and hospitals were on the verge of collapse because of the electricity and fuel crisis.
The Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza has also warned of an "immanent" food crisis due to the electricity cuts and fuel shortages, saying in a statement this week that the food supply was threatened with disruption.
Wells, farm machinery, processing and packaging plants, and poultry farms were particularly in danger, the ministry said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of boats are trapped in port due to a lack of fuel.
The production stoppage in the agricultural sector was "another episode in the string of catastrophes that has afflicted Gaza because of the Israeli blockade and the lack of intervention on the part of the Arab and European states and human-rights organisations," the ministry statement said.
The public transport system in Gaza also faces impending crisis. Because of the shortage of petrol from Egypt, private vehicles will soon have to stop operating, leading to a rise in the pressure on public transport.
Despite the crisis, the local governments of Gaza and Ramallah are still deducting 170 shekels ($44) from every government employee's pay to help foot the bill for domestic electricity consumption.
Under current conditions, many civil servants cannot see the justification for continuing these deductions.
Ahmed Hamad, 65, told the Weekly that two of his sons worked for the government in Ramallah, while a third worked for a government agency in Gaza. Together, they have 540 shekels deducted from their monthly salaries, even though they live in the same house and suffer from the ongoing electricity crisis.
A further cause of the fuel crisis in Gaza is political and related to the internal rift among the Palestinians. While the Arab League has said that Gaza can be hooked up to the regional grid that covers seven countries, among them Egypt, this can only happen if the Palestinian factions reach reconciliation first.
According to the League, Gaza cannot be connected to the regional grid in the absence of a request from Mahmoud Abbas in his capacity as Palestinian president.
However, it seems that Abbas has been treating the electricity question in Gaza as one of the issues needing to be resolved as part of a comprehensive agreement between the factions, and it has several times been on the agenda of talks between Abbas and Khaled Meshaal, head of the Hamas political bureau.
Some of the pressures afflicting Palestinians in Gaza have been caused by the Israeli blockade. However, others have been caused by the Palestinians' own failure to establish a system of government that puts the welfare of the people first.
Until such a system is in place, the Palestinians' daily tragedy is likely to continue.