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.
Gaza has had fuel problems since the start of the Israeli-Egyptian border blockade. Initially, the EU bought the fuel needed for the Gaza power plant from Israel, which then delivered it through one of its crossings. Eventually, the EU asked the Abbas government to pay for the fuel and get the money back from Hamas. After a standoff, Hamas did make contributions for buying the Israeli fuel — before gambling on the cheaper option of smuggled Egyptian fuel.
Hamas now wants Egypt to openly deliver its fuel to Gaza through the Rafah crossing on their shared border — setting a precedent for establishing a proper trade route.
Egypt would agree to ship fuel, but insists on delivering it through Israel and via Israel's Kerem Shalom cargo crossing to Gaza, said an Egyptian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue.
The circuitous arrangement makes the point that Israel bears responsibility for Gaza and not Egypt.
"We propose Kerem Shalom, because with this, we stress that Gaza is still under Israeli responsibility," the diplomat said. "If we accept what Hamas wants, we would absolve Israel of this responsibility."
Hamas argues that the Kerem Shalom option would give Israel control over Gaza's fuel supply.
The West Bank and Gaza, both captured by Israel in the 1967 war, lie on either side of the Jewish state. Over the past decade, Israel has enforced strict travel restrictions between the two, raising Arab concerns that it wants to "unload" Gaza onto Egypt and limit any future Palestinian state to a part of the West Bank.
Egypt also wants market rates for its fuel, which Hamas says it cannot afford. In recent days, Hamas officials have visited Qatar, Turkey, Bahrain and Iran in search of fuel subsidies. Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said Qatar has promised to help.
Yousef Rizka, an adviser to Haniyeh, accused Egypt of "political blackmail" and called on Egypt's newly elected parliament, dominated by Islamists, "to solve this problem."
Hamas officials also suspect Egypt is using the fuel issue to indirectly pressure the movement into accepting a Palestinian unity deal that would help Abbas regain some control in Gaza. Hamas leaders in Gaza have blocked the deal signed last month by their top leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal.
In recent days, Hamas has sent dozens of supporters to demonstrate near the Egyptian border to demand that Cairo start sending fuel.
But Hamas faces growing discontent.
"The government is responsible to find a solution for us," said Amjad Daban, a 44-year-old teacher who spent an hour Wednesday looking for transport. "I don't care where the fuel will come from. What I need is to find electricity and transportation."
Laub reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed reporting.