Egypt-Hamas standoff leads to Gaza power crisis (AP) Associated Press) By IBRAHIM BARZAK and KARIN LAUB GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip 03/22/12 6:18 am ET)
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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
"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
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
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. (© 2012 The Associated Press 03/22/12)
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