Despite improved power supply, Palestinians in besieged strip say durable solutions must be implemented.

01 Feb 2017
Farah Najjar

Farah Najjar is an online producer at Al Jazeera English.

Despite a temporary improvement in power supply, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip say the lack of consistent access to electricity has made their lives unbearable and are demanding more durable solutions.

“Our lives are at a halt due to the power cuts,” Shukri Abu Oan, a Gaza-based activist, told Al Jazeera.

Frustrations amplified earlier this month when rampant power cuts left Gazan homes without electricity for up to 21 hours a day. Thousands of residents took to the streets to voice their discontent in the first mass protests the besieged enclave has seen in nearly a decade.

Since the protests, Gaza has been receiving electricity based on a new but temporarily implemented schedule, offering eight hours of power at a time.

But residents say the inconsistency in power supply has disrupted daily life.

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“I see my mother suffering. I have eight siblings. They can never focus while studying and without sufficient power. There has been a deterioration in the standard of education in the strip,” said Abu Oan, one of the protest organisers.

Gaza has been under a decade-long siege imposed by Israel following Hamas’ election victory and subsequent takeover of the Strip in 2007. With severe restrictions on food entry and access to basic services, Gaza has been dubbed the world’s largest open-air prison, and its economy has struggled to stay afloat.

Gaza’s population, numbering about two million, has become accustomed to periodic food and medical shortages. The blackouts that began on January 3 proved arduous for even Gaza’s battle-weary citizens.

The protests have yielded some results, with residents reporting that the number of hours electricity has been available increased just three days after protests erupted.

Mohammed al-Tlouly, a Gaza-based activist, said the strip had turned into “blotch of darkness”.

“We’re demanding a basic human right. All of the protesters who participated – not affiliated with any political groups – want to end to this nightmare,” al-Tlouly told Al Jazeera.

An estimated 11 protesters were temporarily detained for their involvement in the demonstrations as clashes erupted between protesters and the police in an attempt to block the march, according to Abu Oan.

“We broke the silence barrier and rallied the people of Gaza to say ‘no’ peacefully,” he said.

Though Gaza once received its electricity from Israel, Egypt, and its only power station, recent developments have severely affected access to power.

In 2013, Egypt, which has largely shut off its border crossing with Gaza, blocked tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt’s al-Arish, stemming the flow of goods, including fuel used to generate power

Gaza’s power plant, built in 2002, in Nuseirat City, has also been repeatedly damaged by Israeli air strikes and currently operates at half of its original capacity. This, coupled with the prolonged blockade that restricts the entry of construction material, has made Israel the sole fuel supplier to the strip.

Owing to Gaza’s shrunken and devastated economy as a result of a series of Israeli military operations over the past decade, Palestinians have found it challenging to meet the costs required to buy Israeli fuel.

The last military raid in 2014 particularly deepened the humanitarian crisis on the ground. At least 18,000 housing units were destroyed, leaving more than 100,000 people homeless.

Currently, 80 percent of Gaza households are living under the poverty line and rely on some form of external aid to put food on the table. In addition, unemployment rates in Gaza stand at more than 40 percent.

Waleed Al-Modallal, associate professor of political science at Gaza’s Islamic University, said that the wrecked infrastructure is simply unable to service a growing population.

“The electricity crisis has worsened over the years. Every member of the Gazan society has been affected. People have resorted to dangerous solutions due to the chronic disruptions of power,” Al-Modallal said, speaking to Al Jazeera.

The anger and dissent among Gaza’s citizens is also being channeled towards what some in the Strip see as the inability of Palestinian leadership to move towards a lasting solution to the crisis.

Both the Hamas movement and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank continue to trade blame for the issue.

“[Through the protests] we wanted to return to our people a sense of national sentiment, something we have been stripped of in the midst of this political split. We wanted our demands to be heard as mere citizens, not as political affiliates,” said Abu Oan.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem deferred blame for the cuts. “We are a movement, and not a government … [but] it is a neglect on everyone’s part, especially the Palestinian Authority,” he told Al Jazeera.

Fatah placed blame squarely on Hamas.

“Hamas is directly responsible for the power company in Gaza. It is the entity that hires its employees, it is the entity that is directly tasked with improving the plant’s condition, and it has been receiving monthly funds from the Palestinian Authority,” Osamah Qawasmeh, a spokesperson for Fatah, said from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Qawasmeh told Al Jazeera that Hamas’ financial contribution to fuel purchases had been minimal.

Given that all parties were to blame for the current predicament, said al-Modallal, a people’s protest was inevitable.

Whether it is Hamas, the PA, or Israel, the electricity crisis was the outcome of a set of complexities, including “internal political rivalries” and, ultimately, the Israeli occupation, he said.

“The people of Gaza are always adapting to harsh living conditions, and are not expecting to receive power 24 hours a day. People are realistic, and are only hoping to receive electricity for more than a few hours a day,” he said.