From factories to the fishing industry, the Gaza Strip economy is being affected by more than two months of fuel shortages and power outages, taking a toll on the livelihoods of its 1.6 million inhabitants.
To make a living on the sea, Madlene Kollab needs 20 litres of fuel each day. Unable to afford that, the Gaza Strip’s only fisherwoman has seen her catch halve to just 1.5 kilos per day. “I [began] fishing with my father when I was six years old, but without fuel I can hardly survive.”
The 10-week fuel crisis has hit power generation, with Gaza’s diesel-fired power station forced to make daily electricity cuts lasting for up to 12 hours.
Thabit Tarturi, who runs a beach-side restaurant in Gaza City, is seeing his earnings eaten up by the cost of the fuel needed to run his generators. “There is absolutely no profit at the moment. Our only [earnings go to] food and survival, that’s it,” he told IRIN.
The power cuts are also “disrupting the delivery of basic services, including water and healthcare”, Ramesh Rajasingham, head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the oPt has warned.
Gaza’s only power station was forced to shut down on 14 February due to the lack of fuel, which has previously been imported in amounts of up to one million litres a day, smuggled through underground tunnels from the Egyptian border post of Rafah. OCHA estimates that less than 100,000 litres is now arriving.
The dramatic fall-off is reportedly linked to a clampdown by the Egyptian authorities on smuggling in the Sinai Peninsula by Bedouin tribes, who took advantage of the insecurity following the fall of Hosni Mubarak to extend their criminal influence. The fuel is pumped from trucks on the Egyptian side into Gaza through pipes in the tunnels.
The Hamas government in Gaza began to use the tunnels after Israel imposed a tight blockade on the Strip in mid-2007. Despite the easing of restrictions by Israel in 2010, that trade has continued as fuel from Egypt is significantly cheaper. Two kinds of tunnels exist: those that are taxed and controlled by Hamas, and the others which are non-affiliated. But in both cases, “the electrical connections are courtesy of Rafah municipality, to which the smugglers pay a license fee”, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
A sustainable solution to the current crisis means agreement among the four main players: Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel and Egypt.
On 13 April, Egypt brokered a deal in which Hamas would channel money to an Israeli company through the PA, given that Israel has no direct links with Hamas. Upon payment, the Israeli company would deliver fuel through the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza. So far, about US$8.9 million has been paid, Palestinian officials in Ramallah said.
As a result, some 6.1 million litres of fuel in 13 separate consignments have been delivered to the Gaza power plant via the Kerem Shalom crossing between 4-23 April, according to OCHA. Fuel brought in from Israel is twice as expensive as that smuggled from Egypt.
The Gaza power station requires more than 400,000 litres of diesel a day, and currently operates just two of its four turbines, producing 35 megawatts (MW) instead of 80-85 MW. It has managed to reduce power outages from the 18 hours a day that prevailed in February and March.
But “a legitimate solution for the transfer of sufficient fuel is imperative to ensure that the most basic services can be maintained”, said OCHA’s Rajasingham.
In its absence, humanitarian efforts have brought some short-term relief. A delivery of 150,000 litres of fuel by the International Committee of the Red Cross on 2 April restored the fuel reserves of Gaza’s hospitals for an estimated two more weeks.
“The current agreement is not a long term solution. It only serves the people of Gaza until other solutions are in place,” said a senior PA official, Ghassan Khatib.
According to Khatib, only the terms of a previous agreement between Egypt and Hamas, announced on 23 February, could provide a sustainable solution. “This includes building a gas pipeline from Egypt to the Gaza Strip and linking the two electricity grids with each other. But this will take at least eight months.”
However, the conditions under which this agreement will be implemented, if at all, remain unclear.
“Each side in this game is trying to pressure the other, and Egypt is in the middle of it, trying to solve the problem. But Egypt is also cautious and angry about Hamas, because smuggling through the tunnels has caused troubles in Egypt,” Abdel Monem Saed, president of the Egyptian Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told IRIN, adding: “Multiple parties are involved in the same problem and that makes it all complicated.”
The Egyptian government is reluctant to accept responsibility for Gaza’s energy crisis, but rather holds Israel responsible as it controls the main entry point to the territory at Karem Shalom, said Sami Abu Sultan, a humanitarian aid worker from Gaza. “It is clear for Egypt that Israel is trying to push the responsibility about Gaza towards it.”
Hamas objects to a solution involving Israel, arguing that this could give Israel the opportunity to cut supplies in times of political tension. Instead, it wants direct trade with Egypt via the Rafah crossing, according to Ahmad Abu Al-Amreen, spokesperson of the Energy Authority in the Gaza Strip.
Analysts think that is unlikely to happen. “Egypt has no interest in delivering fuel directly to the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing or the underground tunnels. Rafah is a crossing for persons, not for goods. And the tunnels are not an acceptable way of transfer,” said Monem Saed.
Amreen said some fuel was also expected from Qatar. “A ship loaded with about 30 million liters of fuel as a donation from Qatar is currently waiting at Suez port…Negotiations with Egypt are underway to facilitate the delivery to the Gaza Strip.”
Meanwhile, Egyptian parliamentarians are also exerting some pressure. “We, in the Egyptian parliament, are trying to pressure the government to act for the sake of the people in Gaza. I believe that Rafah is an option, simply because it’s the quickest way,” Sayed Majida, chairman of the parliamentary energy committee, told IRIN.
A direct deal between Egypt and Hamas is also supported by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which denies any responsibility for the energy crisis. That deal, observers believe, is in line with Israel’s shared interest with Egypt on threats to stability coming out of Gaza.
“We are not at all involved in this crisis. We bear no responsibility and we think that fuel should be supplied to Gaza directly from Egypt. That would make things a lot easier,” said Yigal Primor, spokesperson of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“All players have roles in this crisis,” Samer Zaqot, field work coordinator at Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, told IRIN . “But if we go back to the roots, we need to ask why Hamas decided to become dependent on smuggled fuel from Egypt.”