During a visit to Gaza late last year, a colleague called me at the last minute to postpone a planned meeting. Apologizing, he told me that he needed to go home for several hours to do laundry. Electricity had come on in his neighborhood and he needed to complete household chores while it was available.
Later, he told me, “Life [in Gaza] is shaped by the electricity crisis. If there is power from 3 pm to 10 pm today, there won’t be tomorrow. When there is power in the afternoon, I go home and do work. I do laundry and anything else. When the power is off in the afternoon, I don’t go home. I won’t go home until it is on, because at home, I will just sit in the dark. I live on the 11th floor of my building and I can’t do anything there without electricity.”
In winter, the electrical crisis has deadly consequences. Last May, the Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza reported that since 2010, 29 people, including 24 children, had suffocated or died in fires while using gas heaters or candles because of the lack of electricity.
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Without change we can expect that more people will die in the future, especially given that due to the ongoing fuel crisis, the amount of electricity provided to Gaza residents has decreased to as little as three hours per day for some periods.
The electricity crisis began in 2006, when the Israeli military bombed Gaza’s only power plant, destroying its six transformers. It took five months for the plant to resume partial production, and today, it still can’t function at full capacity.
Over the last 10 years, Gaza’s electrical infrastructure has been destroyed and degraded. Gaza is under an Israeli-imposed blockade that prevents the plant from importing parts to replace damaged components. As a result, the amount of available electricity has decreased sharply. Temporary fixes have allowed it to function at a minimal level, but those solutions were never made to last. And now, Gaza’s power system is at risk of total collapse.
The Palestinian Authority and Hamas bear at least partial blame because of their infighting and tax policies that have limited the ability of the only power plant in Gaza to purchase fuel. However, primary responsibility rests with Israel, whose military actions and blockade are at the root of the crisis and prevent it from being resolved.
While the electrical grid is linked with the Israeli system, Israel limits how much power it sells to Gaza, and power lines can only supply a fraction of Gaza’s total needs. Israeli restrictions on fuel imports to Gaza also limit production. Even before the current fuel crisis, less than half of Gaza’s electricity demand — 470 megawatts — was being met.
This crisis affects the health and well-being of residents; jeopardizes critical services, such as hospitals, schools and water sanitation systems; and makes it impossible for businesses to function. New water filtration plants are needed in Gaza to treat sewage, which is currently being dumped in the Mediterranean Sea. But even if built, no plant could come online without a steady electricity supply.
Desalination plants are needed to purify drinking water. These plants also cannot function without electricity.
Business opportunities are needed in Gaza, but factories can’t function without electricity.
In October of last year, I spoke with Ismael Ramlawi, a factory owner in Gaza, about the impact of the electricity crisis on his business. “Although we are supposed to have eight hours of power each day, the power often goes off for 30 minutes, one hour, or two hours during that period,” he said. “When the power goes off, we lose some of the product we are producing and it takes 15 minutes to switch to a generator and reheat the equipment so we can restart production. We have power cuts four or five times every day, which means we lose at least one hour of production. We can therefore only produce goods for three or four hours every day.”
This situation cannot be allowed to continue, and at present, it is only getting worse. Action is needed to end the blockade and to ensure that the rights of Palestinians in Gaza, including their right to electricity, are respected. Without change, the humanitarian and political crises in Gaza will continue to worsen.
Israel has justified its blockade of Gaza by saying that it is in place to ensure Israeli security, but after 10 years, it has done nothing to meet that goal, and has fundamentally undermined the rights of Palestinians. The security of Israelis cannot be achieved at the expense of the security of Palestinians. The blockade must end.