Gaza’s power crisis deepens as PA says it will not pay Israel for electricity

It came as the World Bank warned that constant fuel shortages and insufficent infrastructure have brought about a 'humanitarian crisis' for Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

JERUSALEM // The Palestinian Authority told Israel on Thursday it will no longer pay for the electricity Israel supplies to Gaza, Israeli officials said, a move that could lead to a complete power shutdown in the territory whose two million people already endure blackouts for much of the day.

The decision came as the World Bank warned that constant fuel shortages and insufficient infrastructure have brought about a “humanitarian crisis” for Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The Islamist Hamas movement seized power in Gaza in 2007 from the Ramallah-based Fatah organisation of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the western-backed Palestinian Authority.

The latest move was another sign of a hardening of PA policy towards Hamas as both parties are locked in a struggle over a unity deal that could loosen the Islamist group’s hold on the Gaza Strip.

A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, called the move “a grave escalation and an act of madness”.

Israeli authorities deal with the PA on electrical and fuel supplies for Gaza because Israel does not engage with Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist organisation.

To pressure Hamas into new Palestinian elections, the PA has already taken several steps, such as taxing Israeli fuel it purchases for Gaza’s sole power plant — which stopped operating two weeks ago as it was unable to come up with funds required.

Regaining a measure of control over Gaza could empower Mr Abbas politically as Israel and the Palestinians await a widely expected push by US president Donald Trump for a revival of peace efforts that stalled in 2014.

“The Palestinian Authority has informed it will immediately stop paying for the electricity that Israel supplies to Gaza through 10 power lines that carry 125 megawatts, or some 30 per cent of Gaza’s electrical needs,” said a statement from Cogat, Israel’s military liaison agency with the PA.

With the generating plant offline and Egyptian supplies via power lines notoriously spotty, Israeli electricity has been vital, keeping power on for Gazans, although for only four to six hours a day.

Ahead of an international donor conference next week, the World Bank said on Thursday that foreign aid alone cannot rescue the stagnant Palestinian economy without practical changes and Israeli cooperation.

Gaza’s sole electricity plant frequently runs out of fuel for its generators and rations power supplies to as little as four hours per day.

“During summer and winter peaks the scarce electricity supply is increasingly rationed to four hours during daytime,” the bank’s report quoted its West Bank and Gaza director Marina Wes as saying.

“Recently, this situation has become the norm leaving Gazans without electricity during most of the day. This has created a humanitarian crisis for Gaza’s two million people.”

The shortages hit hospitals, clinics, water supply and other vital services, as well as household needs, she said.

Protests broke out in January over the power cuts, which the Gaza health ministry warned could have “dangerous consequences” for patients.

“The PA needs to address reforms to ensure that payment obligations to electricity suppliers are met as this will encourage the needed private generation investment,” the World Bank said.

“This is particularly important in Gaza to allow the construction of a high-voltage line from Israel to contribute to the relief of the energy crisis.”

Israel charges the PA 40 million shekels (Dh40.3m) a month for the electricity, deducting the sum from the transfers of Palestinian tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the authority.

Gaza needs 400 megawatts of power to ensure full 24-hour supply to its residents, according to Israeli sources.

That goal is not met even when the power plant is operational. It usually produces 60 megawatts, added to the 125 megawatts supplied by Israel and 25 megawatts that come across power lines from Egypt.

The strip was heavily battered in a July-August 2014 war between Israel and Hamas that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians and 73 people on the Israeli side.

Its problems are exacerbated by a decade-old Israeli blockade.

“Easing of Israeli restrictions on external trade ... and opening up access to Gaza is essential to expand private sector growth and employment,” the report said.

“If both the PA and the government of Israel implement changes, the impact of donor aid would increase significantly,” it added.

The World Bank will present its findings at a May 4 meeting in Brussels of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which co-ordinates international donor support for the Palestinians.

US president Donald Trump is to host Mr Abbas at the White House the day before, for talks on efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.

* Reuters and Agence France-Presse