Israel's supply of electricity to Gaza no act of generosity

Due to its legal obligations, and to avoid a humanitarian disaster, Israel continues to supply electricity and water despite the conflict in Gaza.

al-monitor Electricity pylons and power transmission lines are seen at night in southern Israel, May 17, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

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water, rockets, palestinians, palestinian-israeli conflict, israel, hamas, gaza strip

Jul 14, 2014

While Hamas is launching dozens of rockets a day at Israel's cities and towns, and as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are crushing the terrorist infrastructures in the Gaza Strip, when it comes to infrastructure and trade relations, an anomaly can be spotted. Israel Electric Corp. (IEC) continues to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip residents and its institutions, while Mekorot [the national water company of Israel] goes on supplying the Strip with drinking water, complementing the local supply. At the same time, the traffic of trucks loaded with goods, passing from Israel into the Strip through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, is routinely carried on.

This [apparent] anomaly has a simple explanation: Rather than testifying to any generosity of spirit on the part of the Israeli government, it reflects the no-choice situation it has been caught in ever since the Oslo Accord was signed. Israel has full control over all the external borders of the Gaza Strip, whether at sea, on land or in the air — this, with the exception of the Rafah border crossing, which serves as a pedestrian-only gateway into Egypt. And with such control, Israel has to assume responsibility for what is going on within the hemmed-in area. A foreign journalist recently interviewed on the BBC has aptly described the situation, noting that even in the most heavily fortified and guarded prison, the guards have to see to it that the prisoners can lead their life.

The requirement for Israel to enable life in the Gaza Strip is anchored in international agreements and treaties, and Israel is thus held responsible for the livelihood and well-being of the millions of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

The IEC would readily cut off electricity supply to Gaza

The electricity supply to the Gaza Strip pertinently reflects the Palestinian dependence on Israel as far as quality of life in the Strip is concerned. Gaza is supplied with electricity by three main sources: Israel, local Gaza power plants, and Egypt. However, due to the high cost of fuel, which serves [inter alia] to produce electricity, electricity supply in the Gaza Strip is irregular. Electricity is supplied to the Gaza residents for 12 hours a day only. In hundreds of the residential buildings in the Strip, especially high-rises, home generators have been installed to complement the deficient power supply. Departure and arrival hours of the residents in the high-rise buildings are scheduled according to the electrical supply hours, so as to enable use of the elevators.

Had it been up to the IEC top executives, the company would have cut off electricity supply to the Palestinian Authority long ago, as the authority owes it more than 1.4 billion shekels [nearly $409 million]. IEC Chairman Yiftah Ron-Tal has made it clear a number of times in the past that the decision to cut off Gaza or the West Bank from electricity supply by the company is a political decision, and that the company cannot take such a step on its own.

Sources close to the IEC say that the National Security Council, which is subordinate to the Prime Minister's Office, has recently instructed the company, informally, to refrain from cutting off electricity supply to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. It seems that in the Prime Minister’s Office, they are concerned about both the possible damage to the reputation and potential international legal claims. The Middle East Quartet Representative Tony Blair has even urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to disconnect any West Bank or Gaza Strip consumer from electricity supply. What’s more, cutting off power supply to the Palestinians at this time could be seen as breaking the status quo maintained by Israeli governments in the previous rounds of fighting — during the Cast Lead and Pillar Of Defense operations, to name but the recent two — when notwithstanding the hostilities, utilities were supplied as usual.

Needless to say, the decision to refrain from cutting off power supply [to Gaza] has clear humanitarian aspects: Israel cannot selectively cut off power supply to designated customers, as such a move would also affect noncombatant populations and damage the infrastructures of the Gaza hospitals.

The electricity bills offset against tax transfers

As a rule, power supply to the Palestinians is implemented by the East Jerusalem Electric Co., which has been authorized by the Palestinian Authority to purchase power and supply it to the West Bank residents. And although until recently, the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip acted independently of the Palestinian Authority, IEC used to submit the electricity bills incurred by the Gaza consumers to the Ramallah bureau of Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, with a copy to the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem. However, the bills for the electricity supplied to Gaza were offset against the tax funds passed on by the Finance Ministry to the Palestinian Authority.

The 10 high-voltage lines connecting the Israeli power grid to the Gaza Strip routinely supply the strip with 120 megawatts (MW) regularly, which constitute less than half the supply required in the Strip. And this is under the rather optimistic assumption that the electricity transmission infrastructures in the Gaza Strip operate as expected.

Palestinians would find it difficult to finance the construction of power plant

It is this very dependence [of Gaza on Israel] that obliges Israel, both legally and for humanitarian reasons, to supply electricity to Gaza, which prevents the regime in Gaza — be it the rule of Hamas or that of the Palestinian Authority itself — to break away from Israel. Up to 2006, an old power plant, operated by diesel, with a capacity of several dozens of megawatts, supplied Gaza with electricity. However, it was bombed by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead. To break away from Israel, a medium-size power plant has to be set up in Gaza, with a capacity of 350 megawatts to 400 megawatts, which would be capable of answering both the current demand and the expected growing demand for electricity in the Strip. Unfortunately, the construction cost of such a power plant is about 3 billion shekels [close to $876 million], and construction work might take as long as 36 months.

Hence, even if the Gazans find a source of financing for their power plant, whether in the European Union or in Qatar, as well as suppliers of diesel or natural gas to generate electricity, and contractors to build the power plant, it would be only by the end of the decade that they might gain independence from the Israeli power grid.

Solar panels “tiled” across the Strip could also be used as a power supply source. However, it's rather in doubt whether it is a feasible option, given the Israeli airstrikes. A third option is to place dozens of industrial generators throughout Gaza. But then again, such a move would simply convert the dependence on Israeli electricity supply into Gazan dependence on fuel supply from Israel for operating the generators.

Even so, the Gaza residents are dependent on fuel supply by Israeli companies, including the supply of gasoline and diesel to fuel their vehicles. Fuels are currently supplied to Gaza in equal shares by the BAZAN Group Oil Refineries Ltd, controlled by the Ofer family, and by Paz, owners of the Ashdod Oil Refinery, which is under the control of Bino Tzadik. It is estimated that the two companies transfer to Gaza some 200,000 liters of diesel and gasoline daily, in addition to several thousand liters of cooking gas. Even now, at the height of fighting, the companies keep supplying fuel to the Gaza residents, as part of the transfer of goods.

The revenues yielded by any such contract [for fuel supply], which is typically a multiyear contract, although it may be revoked on a three-month notice, are estimated at $2 billion a year per supplier. BAZAN has released a statement reading as follows: “In coordination with all competent security agencies, BAZAN carries on as usual, in accordance with the instructions by the Home Front Command.” Paz has declined to comment.

The water sources of Gaza contaminated with sewage

As is the case with electricity, the Gaza residents are dependent on Israel for their water supply, too. Mekorot supplies the Gaza Strip with 5 million cubic meters per year, in line with the Israeli commitment under the addendum to the Oslo Accord. To complement the supply and answer the demand, the local authorities in Gaza have carried out a number of drillings along the coastal aquifer.

However, the local drillings have been performed in a poor manner, resulting in the contamination of drinking water sources in the Strip. The erratic electricity supply has also damaged the sewage drainage system, so that sewage water has permeated the water supply system. The Gazans are thus forced to boil their tap water before drinking it. What’s more, the Palestinian drillings have caused partial damage to the coastal aquifer in the Ashkelon region [in southern Israel]. However, thus far, Israel has been unable to stop them.

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