Egypt-Hamas standoff leads to Gaza power crisis

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Palestinians wait to fill up canisters with fuel at a gas station in Gaza City, Wednesday, March 21, 2012. A test of wills between Egypt and Gaza's Hamas government has produced the worst energy crisis here in years: Gazans are enduring 18-hour-a-day blackouts and the fuel supply is running low.

Adel Hana, Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A dispute between Egypt and Gaza's Hamas government has produced the worst energy crisis here in years: Gazans are enduring 18-hour-a-day blackouts, fuel is running low for hospital backup generators, raw sewage pours into the Mediterranean Sea for lack of treatment pumps and gas stations have shut down.

The fuel and electricity shortages, which have escalated over the past two months, are infuriating long-suffering Gazans who say their basic needs, perhaps more than ever, are being sacrificed for politics.

"Life here is getting worse every day," said Rawda Sami, 22, part of a group of students waiting in vain for public taxis outside the Islamic University. "There is no power, no transportation, and none of the leaders are thinking of us."

Ostensibly the spat revolves around fuel supplies from Egypt — but on a broader level, it is linked to Egypt's troubled relationship with Hamas and its long-standing deep ambivalence toward Gaza itself.

Hamas wants not just fuel: It hopes to leverage the crisis into getting Egypt to open a direct trade route with Gaza. Such an outcome might stabilize the Islamic militants' rule over the territory they seized in 2007 from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, headquartered in the West Bank.

Egypt refuses, wishing to keep Gaza at arms' length, and to avoid absolving Israel from continuing responsibility for the crowded, impoverished slice of Mediterranean coast. Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, after a 38-year military occupation, but still controls access by air and sea — and, except for the several mile (kilometer) long border with Egypt, by land.

After the Hamas takeover, Israel and Egypt imposed a border blockade on Gaza to try to dislodge the new rulers. Since the fall of Egypt's pro-Western President Hosni Mubarak last year, Cairo has eased restrictions on passenger traffic but has refused to open a cargo route. Instead, it largely has turned a blind eye to smuggling fuel and other supplies through hundreds of border tunnels.

The fuel crisis has its origins in the decision by Hamas, more than a year ago, to use smuggled fuel to run the territory's only power plant instead of paying for more expensive fuel coming through an Israeli cargo crossing. The plant normally provides 60 percent of Gaza's electricity.

Several weeks ago, the flow of smuggled Egyptian fuel began to slow: Egypt was itself suffering shortages, and it grew annoyed that Hamas was profiting by imposing tariffs on subsidized fuel meant for Egyptians.

The Gaza power plant shut down on Feb. 10 and has been mostly offline since. Depots of fuel for transportation gradually ran low, and major gas stations in Gaza City closed several days ago.

In recent days, no smuggled fuel has reached Gaza, traders say.

As a result, hospitals say fuel supplies for generators have run dangerously low, endangering hundreds dependent on steady electricity, including premature babies in incubators, kidney patients on dialysis and those in intensive care. Half the ambulances serving Gaza's biggest hospital have been grounded.

Most cars are now off the streets, and large crowds fight over the few public taxis. The Gaza Cabinet ordered some 1,800 civil servants with government-issue cars to start picking up hitchhikers.

Those with diesel cars have begun pouring used cooking oil into their tanks. Water supplies have dropped sharply because there's not enough fuel to pump it up from wells. Sewage is discharged into the Mediterranean because waste-treatment pumps can't operate.

"The storage in Gaza is zero and within 48 hours, we will see a real disaster in terms of health, water and transportation," said Amjad Shawa, who heads a network of Gaza civic groups.

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