Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the Gaza Strip last week to protest against power cuts, as a chronic lack of electricity exacerbates a decade-old energy crisis in the besieged coastal territory.
The protests, estimated at including some 10,000 people, took place around the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, with demonstrators marching toward the offices of a local electricity company while chanting slogans against Hamas and Fatah leaders. Protesters threw stones and burned tires at Hamas security forces, which fired in the air to disperse the crowd. Amid one of the largest spontaneous protests in Gaza in the last decade, there were several reports of Hamas security forces assaulting journalists; an AFP photographer received treatment in a hospital after being beaten by security officials.
A day earlier, a local comedian was detained by Hamas hours after posting a viral satirical video on Facebook lamenting the crisis. “There is no work, no crossings, no food, no water to drink and also there is no electricity,” he said in the clip. “Enough Hamas. Enough, enough, enough.”
Since late 2016, Gaza’s residents have only received three to four hours of electricity per day, instead of the usual alternate eight-hour cycles. The humanitarian impact of these shortages has been dire. Hospitals have been struggling to function with sporadic power cuts affecting the functioning of critical medical equipment. A lack of electricity has prevented water pumps from working continuously, leading to household shortages, while wastewater plants have been unable to treat sewage, discharging it, instead, into the sea, partially treated. Power cuts have also crippled private businesses, with most unable to afford the fuel required to keep generators going.
Struggling to cope amid plunging winter temperatures, Gazans have resorted to using candles, burning wood, and setting up portable electricity generators in their homes, leading to an increase in house fires. Last May, three young children burnt to death after a fire broke out in their home during a power cut; the incident led to public outrage against the desperate living conditions imposed on the Strip.
The roots of the energy crisis are varied, but ultimately result from a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the territory, years of Israeli military offensives, and internal Palestinian political disputes. In 2006, following the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel deliberately bombed Gaza’s only power plant. Since then, the facility has been working at half capacity, with Israel denying or delaying the importation of materials needed to repair it.
Disputes between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas have exacerbated the crisis. Until 2013, Gaza had largely relied on cheap fuel imported via smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border. After the coup against Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi that summer, those tunnels were systematically destroyed. Facing severe funding shortfalls, Hamas relied on PA-subsidized fuel imports facilitated by Israel. But, in 2015, the cash-strapped Ramallah-based body insisted Hamas begin paying steeper import taxes, causing the power plant to temporarily shut down.
Amid widespread poverty, many Gazans have also struggled to pay their electricity bills, leading to massive debt for local electricity companies.
Gaza’s energy crisis is part of the wider “de-development” of the Strip, as a result of Israeli policies that have systematically punished Gaza’s civilian population since Hamas’ rise to power in 2006. In 2015, the United Nations famously concluded that Gaza may become “uninhabitable” by 2020, but for residents today, that prediction is very much a lived reality.