At night in Gaza, the narrow alleyways of the refugee camps echo loudly with clatter amidst the darkness. The clatter is the sound of small generators. Families in the camps, and many stores in the camps and in the cities, rely on such portable units for electricity during the rolling blackouts that now afflict the Gaza Strip. They’re a poor proxy for power from the central electric station, or would be, if everyone in Gaza could afford them. But they can’t, especially the families living in refugee camps. Instead, they rely on candles.
One such family is Abdel Karim’s. They live in Jabaliya Refugee Camp, in the central-northern segment of Gaza. Jabaliya is labyrinthine and hyper-dense. It is one of eight refugee camps in Gaza, and the largest. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), it houses 108,000 people, 10 percent of Gaza’s population, on four-tenths of one percent of Gaza’s already picayune landmass. Jabaliya’s population density is 74,000 human beings per square kilometer.
I walked into Abdel Karim’s home at around 8:30 PM. The sun had long since set. The room was weakly lit. In front of me were three short tables, the right height for small children to work on when they are kneeling on the ground. Arrayed at those tables were four of Abdel’s children: three girls, Maram, 13; Imam, 10; Riham, 8, and then Mohammed, 6. The tables were rough, pieced together from scraps – two of them were just flat pieces of wood on top of crate material. The third was a plate of metal beaten flat on top of a stand. Atop the tables were a few candles. Not enough.
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There weren’t enough because one shekel – Gaza uses Israeli currency – buys maybe two candles. Candles burn pretty quickly, and when a family has almost no cash income, the difference between two lit candles and three lit candles is a big difference. But two candles created an impossibly wan light, by which Abdel’s children were attempting to do their homework, writing in their schoolbooks while Abdel watched them.
His children try their hardest to study, but it is hard. He tells me that at 10 PM the power flickers on, staying on until 5 AM. For some of that time his children wake up and work when they should be sleeping. Abdel asks for a “solution from the outside world,” while his children do badly in school, and their vision deteriorates from candlelight so weak that I can’t take a photograph. They have “no hope.”
Abdel tells me a familiar story, familiar because it recurs, again and again, in Jabaliya and throughout Gaza. He is not unemployed because he’s shiftless, too lazy to find work, too bereft of initiative to help turn Gaza into a Dubai on the Mediterranean. The unemployment rate is not over 50 percent in Gaza because of sloth. Abdel and so many men like him are unemployed because they used to work in Israel.
But then they stopped. Israel’s closure policy came into effect in 1993, well before the Second Intifada erupted. Because of the closure policy, people from Gaza could no longer come into Israel to work as they had been doing for decades. As Sara Roy of Harvard University, the leading expert on Gaza, writes, “the closure policy proved so destructive only because the thirty-year process of integrating Gaza’s economy into Israel’s had made the local economy deeply dependent.” When the border clamped shut in 1993, “self-sustainment was no longer possible – the means weren’t there. Decades of expropriation and deinstitutionalization had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development, ensuring that no viable economic (and hence political) structure could emerge.”
Abdel relies utterly on UNRWA, for food and water and medical care, but UNRWA can’t create an economic infrastructure where there is none, nor can it import fuel or repair the broken power station that forces Imam and her siblings to study without even the use of electrical light.
This problem predates Cast Lead. Since the summer 2006 bombings, when Israel attacked Gaza’s power plant, an attack that Amnesty International said constituted a “war crime,” Gaza has suffered from intermittent blackouts. The Strip needs about 240 megawatts of power, more in summer peak periods. Half comes from Israel, about a third, ostensibly from the power plant, and 17 megawatts from Egypt. The Gaza power plant has three turbines. Its output, before Cast Lead, was 80 megawatts. To produce that output, it needed 3.5 million liters of diesel weekly. The numbers don’t add up, and even before the recent shortages, the electricity supply was insufficient.
Although the Israeli siege began in late 2005, closure truly tightened in October 2007. Since then, Israel has limited the quantities of industrial diesel permitted into Gaza through the Nahal Oz crossing. The European Union pays for the diesel. It’s impossible to use the diesel that comes in from the tunnels, both due to the EU’s strict requirements vis-à-vis the way it disburses funds, and because the fuel must be modified in accord with the station’s technical needs.
For several months, no diesel came into Gaza, but in January 2008 the State of Israel committed to allowing in 2.2 million liters of diesel into Gaza because of a lawsuit filed by Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian rights, particularly for those Palestinians inhabiting the Gaza Strip. The High Court of Justice deemed 2.2 million liters the “humanitarian minimum.”
For some time afterwards, the power plant functioned on 63 percent of the needed fuel and has produced 55-65 megawatts daily, instead of its maximum output of 80 megawatts. Gisha adds that “this limited quantity has effectively prevented the power station from replenishing its diesel reserves.” That means that when Israel doesn’t bring diesel over the border, there is no reserve supply. The power station shuts down.
Israel rarely complies with the High Court of Justice ruling, according to Paltrade, which monitors the quantity of fuel Israel allows in through Nahal Oz. For the February 21 to March 20 period, when I met Abdel and his children, about 1.25 million liters of fuel were allowed in weekly. About fifty-seven percent of the “humanitarian minimum.” The result is that rolling blackouts can be between eight and twelve hours long, and children study in the dark for no other reason than that they are Palestinian and the Israeli government doesn’t care to allow in enough diesel to give them something so mundane as diesel fuel.
I ask Abdel if I can ask Imam a few questions. He says yes. I ask her what she would like to be when she grows up. She wants to be a doctor, so that she can help people. Many children wish to be doctors, maybe, throughout the world, but many people have told me that in Gaza, all children want to be something that will be helpful to their people or their families: engineers, doctors, firefighters. They don’t want to be professional athletes or dancers or musicians. Imam is unlikely to be a doctor, but in Gaza’s refugee camps children even dream in a utilitarian manner. I ask her if she has a message to the outside world. We ask repeatedly, explicating, clarifying, because she keeps on giving a slightly odd answer, perhaps misunderstanding the question. Perhaps not. She wants “to be the same as the children in the outside world; they have electricity, they have safe places.” Imam has spent half her life in a prison, and lived through several massacres. She has Jabaliya.