Who turned out the lights in Gaza this time?

The current capacity of Gaza’s power station, together with electricity purchased from Israel and Egypt, can supply only 62% of Gaza’s electricity needs

Even in coastal Gaza, it’s a cold, rainy February, and the power outages last an average of 12 hours each day, since Gaza’s power plant shut down Tuesday for lack of diesel. Fuel for generators, even for hospitals, is running low, and water and sewage pumping is disrupted.

The immediate reason for the crisis? Earlier this month, Egyptian security officials began intercepting fuel supplies en route to the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, reducing supplies to one third of their previous levels.

The historic reason? Israeli restrictions on fuel supplies via the overland crossings, imposed in 2007, caused massive shortages and eventually diverted supply to the tunnels with Egypt, an informal arrangement that leaves Gaza residents vulnerable to supply disruptions.

In addition to this, a governance split between Fatah and Hamas has apparently dampened motivation to work together in order to resume ordering the significantly more expensive fuel from Israel.

A quick history of Gaza’s blackouts:

In June 2006, following the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by militants in Gaza, Israel bombed Gaza’s power plant, destroying its transformers, and the damage has yet to be fully repaired. The current capacity of Gaza’s power station, together with electricity purchased from Israel and Egypt, can supply only 62% of Gaza’s electricity needs, which have never been fully met.

In October 2007, Israel imposed restrictions on the transfer of fuel to Gaza, including the industrial diesel needed to operate the power plant. After months of shortages and interruptions of electricity supply and transportation, the Hamas government began bringing fuel into Gaza via the tunnels with Egypt, at much lower prices. In 2010, after the EU stopped paying for diesel for the power station, Hamas began buying that, too, from Egypt. But officially, Egypt does not consider the tunnels to be a legitimate supply channel, and no formal agreement was reached between Egypt and Gaza on energy, which would include supply commitments.

So Egypt believes it can turn off the taps whenever it likes. As for resuming supply from Israel, there are three obstacles:

First, we are not aware of a request from the PA to purchase fuel from Israel for Gaza. Fatah and Hamas have long sparred over financial responsibility for Gaza’s energy supply, and the reconciliation agreement does not appear to have changed that. It is also not clear how quickly purchasers in Gaza would be able to re-adapt to the price differential – fuel from the tunnels is much, much cheaper than fuel purchased from Israeli companies. If Hamas and Egypt cannot agree to restore supplies, the Palestinian authorities will have to cooperate in order to purchase fuel from Israel.

Second, it is not clear whether Israel would still apply its restriction on fuel supplies, imposed in 2007 as a punitive measure against the Hamas regime. Those restrictions are the reason for the development of the tunnel fuel trade.

Third, since 2007, Israel has closed three of Gaza’s goods crossings, including the fuel depot that used to supply Gaza. The last remaining crossing, Kerem Shalom, is not designed for fuel transfer and has limited capacity.

Each of these obstacles can be overcome – Palestinian leaders can put aside their internal disputes and Israel can open crossings and cancel punitive policies. The question is whether all sides will choose to do so, in order to fulfill their responsibilities to the 1.6 million people in Gaza.

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