The Gazan people have become the perpetual bargaining chips in the abusive relations among Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. In the latest saga of the continuation of collective punishment against one of the most deprived populations in the world, the Israeli government, at the request of the PA, reduced the supply of electricity to the Gaza Strip. For a place that in recent times received no more than four hours of continuous electricity supply, followed by 12 hours of power cuts, this is a devastating blow. Whatever the quarrels between Hamas and the PA, let alone Israel, this new brutal measure is politically self-defeating and morally indefensible.
Modernity relies to a large extent on an uninterrupted power supply. It is not a luxury, but a basic commodity that has direct impact on the wellbeing of every single human being. It is time, then, that the people of Gaza are treated as human beings and not as political pawns. Holding 2 million people hostage for more than a decade is nothing short of criminal.
Gaza is a tiny place with an extremely dense population, mainly refugees, which is blockaded by land, air and sea. This makes it the biggest open-air prison in the world, one that suffers from abject poverty and unacceptable levels of unemployment, and is ruled by the oppressive government of Hamas. For more than a decade, Israel has punished the inhabitants of this small strip for exercising their democratic right and voting in the 2006 election in favor of Hamas. By now, most of them have probably received the memo that in hindsight, even if they had some very good reasons to do so at the time, voting for Hamas did not pay off. Wars, blockade, complete separation from the West Bank and international banishment have been inflicted on them, causing extreme human suffering with deadly consequences.
Cutting the power supply for most of the day has direct consequences, not only on the quality of life in Gaza, but also on life itself. It affects the ability to provide adequate health services, education, the production of desalinated water, the operating of basic electric appliances such as refrigerators, especially in the sweltering summer heat, and cripples economic activity.
The Israeli human rights organization Gisha, which focuses on monitoring and reporting on the grave situation in Gaza, wrote a letter to Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The letter warned him that the new measure could push the present humanitarian crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe. The organization, together with a group of other civil society bodies in Israel, also questioned the legality of the government’s decision under both its own, and international law, in a letter to the country’s attorney general. Already in 2008 the Israeli Supreme Court informed the government that due to its control of the crossings between Israel and Gaza, and considering the state of conflict between Israel and Hamas, it has some level of responsibility toward the people of Gaza.
Adding heat to the pressure cooker of Gaza can only lead to an explosion, and unless Israel is interested in another round of hostilities, cutting the electricity supply is bound to be a large misstep.
Even in the best of times, the electricity supply to the Gaza Strip meets less than half of the demand, resulting in no more than eight hours of electricity followed by eight hours of blackout. Israel accounts for more than half of the supply, while the local power plant for less than a third, with the rest coming from Egypt. With the Gaza plant currently shut down because of the fuel taxation disagreement with the PA, Gaza was left depending on Israel for its electricity. Worsening the power supply at the request of the PA over this tax dispute will serve no one and is unlikely to topple Hamas. It is more likely to strengthen Hamas’ grip on the people there and open new opportunities for even more radical movements to enter into the political fray.
Since the end of the last round of violence in the summer of 2014, Israel’s top security officials have been warning that the lack of development in Gaza would only lead to more friction and eventually to war and bloodshed. However, it was the security establishment that recommended that the Israeli Cabinet accept the PA’s request to decrease the supply of electricity to Gaza. Israel has an interest in empowering the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas vis-a-vis Hamas. Nevertheless, one can hardly find a more ill-thought approach for it, as it contradicts the security establishment’s recommendations for the last three years. Adding heat to the pressure cooker of Gaza can only lead to an explosion, and unless Israel is interested in another round of hostilities, cutting the electricity supply is bound to be a large misstep.
If Israel and the PA want to defeat Hamas in Gaza, they better present an attractive alternative to the Gazan people of hope in their time of despair. Ten years of wars and draconian punishment did not end the rule of Hamas. A comprehensive drive to reconstruct Gaza and empower those who can improve the daily lives of ordinary people there stands a better chance of luring people, especially the young, away from extremism and fundamentalism.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.