Why is Gaza facing an electricity crisis?
In the years since Israel’s 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the subsequent taking of power by Hamas in 2006, the residents of Gaza have paid a heavy price as a result of Hamas’ ongoing conflict with Israel and their rivalry with the Fatah movement of President Abbas. Over the course of multiple rounds of fighting, Israel’s responses to Hamas rocket fire have severely damaged or destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure — including power plants and water treatment facilities. Along with Egypt, Israel controls all of the civilian crossing points in and out of the coastal enclave, and it has maintained a strict military blockade of the Strip since 2007 — restricting the entry of much of the construction equipment and raw materials needed to repair and rebuild the infrastructure.
As a result, most of the power supplies for Gaza’s 2 million residents come from Israel — paid for by the Palestinian Authority under the authority of President Abbas. Those supplies have been woefully inadequate and dwindling for years, with residents as of last month receiving just 4 hours of electricity per day.
Now, President Abbas has informed Israel that the Palestinian Authority will reduce payments for Gaza’s electricity by 40 percent. As a result, the Israeli government has carried out a corresponding series of reductions in the power supply, cutting the electricity available to most Gazans to just 2.5 to 3 hours per day.
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Why is the Palestinian Authority stopping their electric payments?
For years, Hamas and Fatah have battled for popularity and control of Palestinian politics in Gaza and the West Bank. After winning Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas won control of Gaza in a military confrontation with Fatah. Since then, the two factions have swung between periods of fierce hostility and several failed attempts at reconciliation. President Abbas sees Hamas’ violent Islamist ideology and frequent terrorism against Israel as endangering his control of Palestinian institutions, his authority in the West Bank and his standing to negotiate with Israel and the international community.
Fatah seems to think that by worsening the economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza, they can undermine Hamas’ credibility and popularity and potentially retake control of the Strip. In addition to the devastating power cuts, they have slashed the salaries of 60,000 Gazan civil servants and have reportedly begun major reductions in the payment vouchers and permits issued to Gazans who need them to obtain medical treatment in Israel, the West Bank or Jordan that is currently unavailable in the Strip. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has said about the motive for these cuts: “I think there is a golden and historic chance to regain the unity of our people. Hamas should relinquish control of Gaza.”
How are broader regional dynamics impacting the situation?
Since 2011, Hamas’ primary regional benefactor has been the small but wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Gaza and played host to senior Hamas leadership in its capital of Doha. Now, Qatar is embroiled in a major confrontation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states including Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE — part of the wider regional power struggle between the Saudi Kingdom and Iran. These states have cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed trade and travel bans. Among other demands, they’re insisting that Qatar stop its support for Islamist terror groups — including Hamas. Hamas now may be left without the support of its best friend in the region. Combined with the power cuts and humanitarian crisis, Hamas is likely feeling increasingly desperate — which could cause them to lash out with a new round of rocket fire and terror attacks against Israel.
What role is Egypt playing?
Since the government of President Sisi seized power by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, relations between Egypt and Hamas have been mostly frosty. Egypt has accused Hamas of aiding Islamic State militants in the Sinai, and has largely kept their portion of the border shut to movement of people and supplies. Now however, with Hamas forced to turn away from Qatar and look for new friends, the two sides appear to be drawing closer. Last week — in a deal facilitated by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah leader and major Abbas rival — Egypt agreed to deliver 1.1 million liters of diesel fuel for use powering Gaza’s small power plant. That supply has eased the burden temporarily, though it’s not nearly enough to end the crisis or guarantee anywhere near normal levels of access to electricity for Gazans in the long-term.
How is the Israeli government responding to the crisis?
The government of Prime Minister Netanyahu has so far complied with the PA’s payment cuts and reduced the power supply to Gaza accordingly. Defense Minister Lieberman has claimed that Israel has zero responsibility for the situation: “What is going on in Gaza is an internal struggle between Hamas and Fatah … Israel is not part of this struggle.” Israel remains extremely concerned about the terror threat from Gaza, including the continued construction of terror tunnels as bases for storing military hardware and launching attacks against Israel. Leaders like Lieberman are hesitant to take any action that could in any way prop up Hamas’ position in the Strip.
Some security officials and government ministers have disagreed with this approach. They worry that the humanitarian crisis could spiral into another full-scale conflict that would cost the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel’s Energy Minister said this week that “We do not want a humanitarian disaster in Gaza … We need to give Gaza 24 hours of electricity despite the conflict.” Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz has argued that Israel needs a long-term policy for improving the situation in Gaza. He has advocated for an ambitious proposal that would construct an artificial island off the coast of Gaza, which would provide Gaza’s residents with a seaport, airport, new power plants and a desalination facility.
While some in the cabinet are intrigued by Katz’s plan, Lieberman and others have objected to it as a potential security liability.
It remains to be seen whether the Israeli government will put its weight behind a proposal to seriously improve the lives of millions of Gazans, or if it will allow the untenable status quo to deteriorate further — potentially into another conflagration this summer.