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Gaza braces itself for 'collapse' after Israel approves reduction of electricity supply

June 12, 2017 1:33 P.M. (Updated: June 14, 2017 9:55 A.M.)
(File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The Israeli security cabinet has approved a 40 percent reduction in Israel’s electricity supply to the besieged Gaza Strip, where Palestinians are already coping with a crippling power crisis and daily, hours-long blackouts, according Israeli media reports.

While Gaza's electricity company said it had not received an official order regarding the impending power cut, it called upon Palestinians in Gaza to prepare for the worst, while human rights groups urged Israel to reconsider the move -- expected to have immediate and disastrous effects on the medical sector in particular.

The approval came after Israeli authorities announced plans to make the cuts last month, upon request of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in occupied West Bank, which foots Gaza’s monthly electricity bill from Israel, by subtracting from taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the PA.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had reportedly informed Israel that the PA only intended to pay 60 percent of the 40 million shekel ($11.19 million) monthly bill, as Hamas, the de facto ruling party in Gaza, and the Fatah-led PA continued to blame each other for a deepening crisis in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Gaza electricity company said on Monday that it had been informed by Egypt’s power company that it could cut off power lines feeding Gaza at any time, without providing further details.

Both Israel and the PA have accused Hamas of collecting millions of shekels in taxes from Gazans every month without transferring the money to the PA, and instead “using (the money) to dig tunnels and for the advantage of Hamas,” as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) put it.

Last week, the Palestinian Energy and Natural Resources Authority blamed Hamas for obstructing the PA’s plan with Israel to solve the electricity crisis by not transferring electricity payments to the PA, rejecting statements by Gaza's power authority saying that it had met all of the PA’s stipulations to end the electricity crisis, but that the governing body in the occupied West Bank had yet to respond.

The PA agency insisted that a solution to the severe electricity woes in Gaza could not be achieved without political reconciliation, some ten years into a bitter feud between Hamas and Fatah since Hamas’ 2006 victory in general elections held in the Gaza Strip.

However, critics have said the PA has attempted to use the electricity crisis to exert pressure on the Hamas government to release control of the small Palestinian territory.

"The decision of the Israeli occupation to reduce electricity being fed to the Gaza Strip at the request of the PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, is a catastrophic and dangerous decision which will further deteriorate the already diminishing humanitarian situation in Gaza," wrote Hamas in a statement.

"The Israeli Occupation and the Palestinian Authority, who have been collaborating with each other to achieve Israel’s agenda of liquidating the Palestinian cause, will solely bear the consequences of this decision," Hamas said.

Some two million Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave have had to make do with just three to four hours of electricity a day since April, and according to Israeli outlet The Jerusalem Post, the new electricity cuts will keep the power on for just two to three hours a day.

Gaza's electricity company said Monday afternoon it had yet to receive any official orders to reduce electricity supply by an hour a day, in response to the reports.

"The Gaza Strip will suffer from dangerous consequences and crises in numerous sectors -- particularly health, education, and services -- if the electricity supply is reduced," head of the electricity company's public relations department Muhamad Thabet told Ma’an.

Thabet demanded that the United Nations and human rights organizations exert pressure on Israel to back down on executing the decision. He said that if and when Israeli authorities implement the move, the electricity company would update the public in a statement to confirm.

Despite the lack of clarity on when the cuts would be imposed, Thabet called upon Palestinians in Gaza to prepare for the upcoming crisis by conserving electricity to mitigate a possible all-out "collapse" of daily life.

Gaza's Health Ministry also released a statement Monday, stressing that the medical sector has already been struggling to provide diesel fuel to operate the 87 generators that supply electricity to hospitals during blackout hours.

Head of the radiology department for Gaza's public hospitals Ibrahim Abbas also said Monday that diagnostic radiology equipment that has been provided over the last ten years -- at an estimated worth of $10 million -- would soon fall into disrepair due to their sensitivity to blackouts.

Abbas said doctors and surgeons in Gaza are heavily reliant on the devices to accurately diagnose conditions and provide adequate medical care to thousands of Palestinian patients.

Gaza’s sole power plant shut down in April, with Gaza’s electricity officials saying they could not afford a PA-imposed tax on diesel fuel that doubled the price of operating the plant. The move also coincided with fuel aid from Qatar and Turkey drying up. The power plant has not run at full capacity in years, with Israel's crippling blockade severely limiting fuel imports into the coastal enclave.

This left the Israeli power lines as the only reliable power source feeding the impoverished territory, since the power lines from Egypt that supply electricity to southern Gaza are often out of operation due to technical issues.

Hours before the Israeli cabinet approved the cut on Sunday, NGO Gisha -- Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, wrote a letter to Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman urging him not to further reduce power and warning against an impending humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“Reducing Israel’s electricity supply to Gaza is a red line that must not be crossed. This suggestion should be taken off the table entirely. Action must be taken to bring Gaza’s infrastructure to a level that meets the needs of its residents,” the letter asserted.

According to Gisha, entire hospital wings are already forced to shut down during Gaza’s daily blackouts, reducing essential, life-saving treatments as a result; while water desalination stations are inoperable, meaning household water is only available intermittently and sewage cannot be pumped away from residential areas.

Noting the destabilizing effects of the financial dispute between Hamas and the PA, Gisha insisted in its statement that Israel be held accountable for the crisis, saying that the state “is not just a service provider, responding neutrally to a client’s request.”

“The collective responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, Egypt, and the international community for the dire state of Gaza’s infrastructure does not diminish Israel’s marked accountability for the situation, nor its inescapable role in fixing it,” the statement said.

“Given its extensive control over life in the (Gaza) Strip, Israel is responsible for enabling normal life for its residents. Israel is obligated to find solutions that will allow for the continued supply of electricity at existing capacity, and to take active steps toward increasing supply in order to allow residents, whose taxes are collected and held by Israel, access to acceptable living conditions.”

The move also comes a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the dismantlement of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) -- the UN agency responsible for providing services to more than five million Palestinian refugees -- a move that UNRWA warned would have particularly devastating consequences on the Gaza Strip, where 80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released reports this month, warning of a full on crisis should the situation in Gaza continue on its current trajectory.

The enclave's severe electricity shortages over the years have exacerbated the already dire living conditions in the small Palestinian territory. War has also taken its toll, and during Israel's 50-day offensive on Gaza in 2014, the power plant was targeted, completely knocking it out of commission.

The UN has warned that the Gaza Strip would become uninhabitable for residents by 2020, pointing to the devastation of war and nearly a decade of Israel's blockade.
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