Electrical Power as Metaphor in Gaza

by Palestine Center Interns

In the developed world electricity is a given. It is a right afforded to people by their government even if through corroboration with some form of private administration such as a utility company. Many underestimate the realities of life without it. The people of Gaza have to face these very realities on a daily basis. In this paper we intend to display how the conditions for daily life in Gaza are decided without the consent of the people of Gaza. Through a focus on electricity, we can trace the power lines to their sources, physically and rhetorically, which will show how providing power to Gaza is to wield power over Gaza.

In March 2017, Tareq Baconi explained the relationship between Gaza’s natural gas resources, and the continuing Israeli aggression toward Gaza and control of its resources. His focus on the ideas of “dependency” and “normalization” provides us with a vocabulary we can use to extrapolate the double entendre of the word “power” as it pertains to Gaza. Baconi’s analysis yields two salient observations. The first is about Gaza’s resource capacity. As he narrates the controversy over the gas fields off the coast of Gaza, Baconi conjectures that with its proven 1tcf of gas, the Gaza Marine field could provide enough energy to relieve its dependence on Israel and Egypt. Omar K.M. Ouda echoes this awareness and furthers that “this field has never been developed due to political instability in the area.” With this awareness of Gaza’s potential for self-sufficiency, we have to parse out the “political instability” that prevents the development of this potential. We must begin with the electricity infrastructure itself in order to understand the dependency Baconi describes.

In 2007, the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement compiled a comprehensive report about the state of Gaza’s power and general municipal infrastructure, humanitarian situation, and environmental circumstance. Since at least 2007, Gaza’s electricity system has depended on the Israel Electric Co. in cooperation with the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company, as well as high voltage lines from Egypt in times of extreme deficiency, which occur frequently. The minute details of these electricity provisions matter, especially during the most violent moments. The main power stations in Gaza rely on industrial diesel. This operational reality is one of the first entanglements we encounter. The diesel is manufactured specifically for electricity generation and cannot be used for anything else. The main provider of the diesel is the Israeli company Dor Alon, and it is transferred through the Nahal Oz terminal to the power station. The European Union is one of the main financial facilitators of this transaction. This situation dates back to the establishment of the Palestine Electric Company and the 2002 completion of the Gaza Power Plant. Gaza’s electricity requires industrial diesel at the moment, not natural gas. Because of this political and infrastructural reality, the potential for Gaza’s energy self-sufficiency faces irrelevance. 

Electrical power as a metaphor for political power continues to prove useful when we look at the intricacies of dependence. Physically, through infrastructure, the government and people of Gaza depend on Israel and the international community for electricity. Reciprocally, Israel depends on conflict between Palestinians in order to continue Palestinians’ dependency on them. Israel maintains the status quo by limiting Gaza’s own development of resources such as the Gaza Marine field. Baconi provides a succinct example of this in his report on the crisis from this year (2017):Anger was directed at Hamas’s government for allegedly diverting funds from the purchase of fuel necessary to run Gaza’s only power plant toward other activities, including the building of tunnels. Frustrated demonstrators accused the PA of supporting the blockade by controlling fuel purchases and transfers into Gaza. The power company itself, a privately owned operation, is repeatedly criticized for supposedly making profit off the backs of ordinary Gazans who suffer from these shortages.

What this anecdote demonstrates is how electrical power is used for political leverage by the different parties. The concerns and preferences of the people of Gaza are countered by the opposing political movements, which are vying for their representation to Israel and the international community. But it is important to keep in mind Gaza’s potential: industrial diesel does get into Gaza; the power plant could provide enough electricity as per its design; in the future, Gaza could be electricity independent given its proven natural gas reserves. It is the political status quo which stifles this potential and opposes the people to the state, or semblance thereof. A look at the implications of restricted electricity to Gaza highlights how civil unrest sublimates into political issues, which then circle back to power lines. A focus on an older and more fundamental natural resource provides this insight.

For most modern municipalities the water and electricity are entangled and Gaza is no different. But, if the control of electricity can be a metaphor for political power, in Gaza it stops at the pumps, filtration devices, and other apparati that comprise the water infrastructure. Water accessibility and quality are essential in this equation and they affect daily life for all people; in Gaza, water is where the political stakes end and human costs begin. As with the electrical infrastructure, the small details matter. Much of Gaza’s water is sourced from underground aquifers, and thus requires pumping and electricity to access. The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) is charged with Gaza’s water and sewage systems, and often has to rely on their own generators to continue their essential operations when the power grid is compromised. Beyond the large scale systemic provision of water depending on electricity, domestic uses of water are also compromised by the electricity crisis. For example, without electricity water cannot be pumped to the upper stories of buildings. These constraints on water accessibility already impair daily life for the people of Gaza, but, the electricity entanglement becomes even more insidious when one considers water quality. The political aspect of the water quality crisis deserves separate analysis, but one can surmise that if getting water at all is difficult, then treating it for human consumption must also be; and this ignores the difficulty of transporting requisite chemicals for these processes, such as chlorine, into Gaza. In the 2007 report, Gisha refers to World Health Organization sources and standards in which it relays that 90 percent of Gaza’s water is not potable, which is also due to seawater seeping into the aquifers; this imposes another set of concerns that imply pumping, and therefore electricity. Gaza’s infrastructure is not only compromised by the inconsistent flow of resources, but by the active destruction rained down upon the area during the intermittent wars that have raged for decades. Given the political entanglements, attacks on Gaza are simultaneously attacks on projects supported by the international community. CMWU director Monther Shubak attests to this in a 2014 interview with Ali Abunimah: “The money of taxpayers or UN agencies is again and again wasted…during these endless wars.”

The people of Gaza who are attempting to live a modern existence, are caught between this restricted electricity, rapidly degrading water supply, and besieged infrastructure. When they attempt to take action to safeguard their survival and well-being, these efforts become sublimated into various levels of conflict that delay action and drown out voices: conflict between Hamas and the PA; between Hamas, the PA, and Israel; and between Israel and the international community. These conflicts steal the decision-making capacity from the citizens of Gaza. To continue with Baconi’s parlance, we now see how the electricity infrastructure can be used “to manage, rather than resolve, the conflict.”  This management of the conflict, rather than its resolution, implies a particular political scale. Baconi relates this specifically to his concern over the Trump administration’s “pursuit of ‘outside in’ diplomatic measures that might entirely circumvent the Palestinians.” The reality however, is that the Palestinians have already been circumvented, and it has precipitated into the electricity infrastructure. 

To provide a concrete example of the scale evoked by the term “international” we can look at the 2007 Al-Bassiouni Case. In response to Qassam rockets coming from Gaza, Israel further restricted the electricity supply to Gaza. A joint effort of Palestinian citizens and various human rights organizations brought a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice demanding that Israel desist from using collective punishment of Gaza’s people as a tactic against Hamas. The Court found the Israeli actions as legitimate economic warfare, and stated that they did not violate “the humanitarian minimums required by international law.” However, in 2007 there was no definition of a “humanitarian minimum” in international law for electricity generation; the Israeli side determined it to be 2.2 million liters of industrial diesel per week. Essentially, because of Israel’s position as the primary provider of electricity, factors on its side are able to make decisions about daily life in Gaza on the international scale, and then act on them on the local scale. The facility for the circumventing of Palestinians that Baconi fears for the future already exists, and the Al-Bassiouni case exemplifies this. The years following that case would bring further troubles, such as Israel’s supply dipping below even their own imposed humanitarian minimum, attacks on electricity workers by Palestinian militants, and the continued attacks by Israel on Gaza and its infrastructure at large, specifically the water system and CMWU workers.

Baconi aptly surmises that “Palestinian energy is pinned to Israel’s goodwill. Israel can and has in the past used its power to effectively turn the taps off for Palestinian consumers.” This demonstrates Israel’s active investment in Gaza’s dependence and their investment in the division of the Palestinian people as well. The political fall-out between the PA and Hamas has ironically given Israel the position of an intercessor with regard to the power structure and water allocation in Gaza. 

A recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides an outlook of the bleak state of the electricity and water – or lack of – in Gaza. As a result of the inconsistent electrical supply and outages, hospitals are forced to severely cut back on services. This includes the postponement of elective surgeries, “increasing the risk of complications”; prematurely releasing patients after surgery; reducing “sanitation and cleaning services”, increasing the rates of infection; and the degradation of medical equipment as a result of the “constant fluctuation” of the electricity current. Furthermore, wastewater treatment cycles have had to be reduced, increasing water pollution and contamination at treatment stations. The people of Gaza are now forced to look at private water suppliers who have a significantly more lenient view of “hygiene standards”. Knowing this, we have to acknowledge that the conditions of life in Gaza reflect the politics that occur outside it. 

Since its installation, the power infrastructure in Gaza has been exposed to political contingencies, in the form of feuds over taxation and targeted attacks attempting to dismantle Gaza’s power infrastructure. This can be seen as the equipment comes from an Israeli company, utilizes a type of diesel fuel that is shipped from Israel, and can only be maintained and serviced by Israeli technicians. While it may seem that much of the power crisis can be pinned on Hamas for refusing to pay the imposed fuel tax, the entire situation can be summed up as an Israeli attempt to keep a foothold in the strip. The Palestinian Authority is also aware of this and has used this to further undermine Hamas’ efforts.  Unfortunately, the issue of restoring electricity to Gaza is more than just turning the power back on. It is turning the administrative and political power over Gaza presumptively to those who could keep the electric power supply consistent. A review of the recent media output on this issue reveals that the people of Gaza have few, if any options, with decisions being made on the national and international levels.

As has been demonstrated, power in Gaza is used as a tool to exert power and leverage over Hamas by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government. This has been seen in the power outages orchestrated by the PA as a result of their dispute with Hamas over “fuel taxes imposed by Israel”. This is the official answer. However, much of the crisis is rooted in familiar political power play by bureaucrats on either side. Since its exile from the Strip in 2007, the PA has wanted to exert its influence over the region in any way possible. 

Gaza’s constant state of crisis is all we see when we turn on our televisions, and thus, has become a normalized crisis. Due to the economic asymmetry of Gaza to its primary aggressor, it has become the battleground of one of history’s longest wars of attrition. There are no shortage of actors motivated by their own interests on all sides. As a result, the battle for Gaza has been sublimated into the softer arena of rhetoric and politics. This includes the adversarial triumvirate of the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, in which the opportunistic Egyptian government also plays a role. 

This exertion of soft power politics by both the PA and the Israeli government was not a spur of the moment decision stemming from fear of a threat to national security. An example of this is in the 2008 Israeli allowance of a humanitarian minimum of fuel supply.  As discussed earlier, the term “humanitarian minimum”, was introduced in the court case between the people of Gaza and the Israeli government, which permitted the people of Gaza only enough resources to survive and not starve. This humanitarian minimum was enough to ensure that Gaza could never grow to full-size and yet prevented the people of Gaza from dying of starvation, which would be a gross large-scale human rights violation. Such a situation clearly benefits Israel and the PA, as it also deprives Hamas of power and support; it is a standard ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ scenario. 


Just a few weeks ago, it would not have been misguided to claim that Hamas and the PA would always have an adversarial relationship. However, recent developments in reconciliation that occurred in Cairo and were spearheaded by the Egyptian government suggest otherwise. Some analysts argue that this is an attempt by the PA to marginalize Hamas and increase their sphere of influence in Gaza. But it is also clear that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza forced Hamas to come to the negotiating table with the PA and allowed the PA to return to Gaza for the first time since their ousting in 2007.  This new deal suggests that Hamas will be assimilated into the PA, suggesting also the possibility for creating a single Palestinian voice. Hamas officials will now become a part of PA ministries and more than 3,000 PA officers will be incorporated into Gaza’s police force.  From the Palestinian perspective, this is could be a great stride to achieving Palestinian unity, as indicated by the positive initial reaction in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet this development will probably not invoke a similarly positive reaction from Israel. According to Israel’s historical complaints, Hamas is the largest threat to the national security interests of the state. Thus, the PA incorporating Hamas into their government might not be viewed as an avenue for peace within the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. As has been demonstrated, Israel relies on Palestinian division to maintain its lucrative and coercive power structure in Gaza, as reflected recently in the comments made by Gershon Baskin, Director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information who anticipated that Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu would look to “damage the unity government” because a solidified West Bank and Gaza “puts pressure” on him to negotiate. Thus, we have yet to see what the reconciliation agreement will actually bring. 


Thus, the question still remains, is this a last-ditch ploy by Abbas and his officials to rescue a doomed Palestinian Authority? Will reconciliation bring about real change to the ever-dwindling electricity infrastructure in Gaza? Will it mean an improvement in the quality of life for the people of Gaza? Will it help the Palestinians in their seemingly never-ending pursuit of self-determination and statehood? The situation entirely depends on the PA and Hamas officials. If they cease their use of Gaza as a battleground for geopolitical influence, with electricity being the main instrument of war and if they can work cohesively and arrange a lasting peace with an Israeli government that does not seek it, Palestine and its people may just have a chance. 

 

References:

Ali Abunimah, “Water Disaster Hits Every Single Person in Gaza,” from Gaza Unsilenced eds. Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad. Just World Books, 2015

Amos Harel, “Gaza Power Crisis Explained: Why Israel and Hamas Are Heading for a Face-off Neither Side Wants”, Haaretz, June 12, 2017: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.795201

B’Tselem, “Israel cannot shirk its responsibility for Gaza’s electricity crisis”, January 16, 2017:  http://www.btselem.org/gaza_strip/20170117_electricity_crisis

Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, “Red Lines Crossed.” August 2009: http://www.gisha.org/UserFiles/File/publications_/Infrastructures_Report_Aug09_Eng.pdf

Jonathan Cook, “Will Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation Deal Succeed?”. Aljazeera, October 13, 2017: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/10/hamas-fatah-reconciliation-deal-succeed-171013064803703.html

Omar K.M. Ouda, “Assessment of the Environmental Values of Waste-to-Energy in the Gaza Strip.” Current World Environment 2013;8(3). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.12944/CWE.8.3.03

Tareq Baconi, “How Israel Uses Gas to Enforce Palestinian Dependency and Promote Normalization” Al-Shabaka, March 12, 2017: https://al-shabaka.org/briefs/israel-uses-gas-enforce-palestinian-dependency-promote-normalization/