Palestinians' power-cut protests reflect simmering discontent in Gaza

Unemployment and alienation of ruling Hamas group from ordinary people also driving anger

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A rare demonstration in the Gaza Strip last week came amid mounting dissatisfaction over the quality of life in the blockaded Palestinian territory after more than 15 years under the rule of Hamas.

An activist group called The Satirical Virus (Al Virus Al Sakher) launched its first call for demonstrations early last month over regular power cuts that make the summer heat harder to bear.

Gaza has been plagued by blackouts ever since Israel bombed its only power plant in 2006. Three of the site's four generators have since been repaired but Hamas claims tight controls on imports by Israel and Egypt have prevented it from fixing the fourth.

In the summer, demand for power in the congested Gaza Strip that 2.3 million people call home rises to between 500 and 550 megawatts a day but the power plant can supply only 60MW while Gaza receives 120MW from Israel. Power supply lasts for a maximum of 12 hours a day.

But this is not the only source of Gazans' woes.

The protesters on Sunday also criticised Hamas for deducting fees of about $15 from the monthly $100 stipend given to Gaza's poorest families and for corruption. The stipend comes from the $30 million a month provided by Qatar to support these families and help Gaza's rulers pay for fuel and the salaries of public servants.

"You're born into a world of difficulty," Gazan researcher Ahmad Al Bassyouni told The National. "Political life is unavoidable – even if you want to avoid current events, or you receive all your news on social media, power shortages, outrage over the exclusion of Gazans from a book fair in Ramallah, for example, everything pulls you back into asking: 'Why is this happening?'"

Ramzi Herzallah, one of the protest organisers, runs campaigns online from Berlin, posting on Facebook every few hours and engaging with the public through Facebook Lives to maintain momentum for more demonstrations.

Mr Herzallah credited the public outrage he has helped to foment for the sacking on Wednesday of the head of Gaza's electricity company.

"One of the major monuments of corruption in Gaza is that the people are living under siege and the leaders of Hamas are living in palaces abroad," he told The National.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh moved to Doha in 2020, where the group's former leader Khaled Meshaal also lives.

"Why are they staying in the fanciest hotels, eating the best food while the people aren't able to feed themselves? Why are you comfortable and we are not?" Mr Herzallah said.

The virtual blockade of Gaza, which began when Hamas took control of the territory in 2007 after a row with the dominant Fatah Palestinian faction based in the occupied West Bank, has created years of hardship for its residents and taken a toll on the territory's economy, creating high unemployment of 46 per cent.

The long-standing frustrations have sparked protests from time to time, including in 2011 where protesters called for unity among Palestinian factions, in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In almost every instance, they were suppressed by Hamas security forces.

Mr Al Bassyouni took part in the protests in 2019, when he was detained briefly and accused of being a foreign agent or spy.

"They kept asking me who I'm working for and who was funding the movement," he recalled.

"This raised the question: if they say they're not responsible for the electricity crisis, why do they feel threatened when we protest?"

Statements by Hamas officials have helped to stoke public anger.

In 2015, when local traders raised an outcry over a new "solidarity" tax on what Hamas considered luxury goods, such as meats, clothes, fruits and electronics, senior Hamas member Jamal Nassar shouted: "None of you are being harmed. Citizens are."

A video of the incident sparked a furore on social media, with people criticising the statement on the group's alienation from civilians.

In 2018, senior Hamas official Khalil Al Hayya said any money that Hamas receives "as a movement" is its own.

"If there's a surplus, the Palestinian people know we would not skimp on them."

Mr Al Bassyouni said comments such as this showed Hamas only cares for its own.

"How could they continue to take our money, raise prices, receive donations and still cut the power?" he said.

Updated: August 04, 2023, 9:39 AM