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Electricity, fuel become key weapon in Hamas-Israel standoff
Gaza Power Politics 6325641
Nidal Touman, an engineer with the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company, points to an Israeli power line feeding Gaza, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008. Gaza's electricity flow has been spotty for years, but rolling power cuts of at least eight hours a day only became the norm after Israel's decided last month to gradually reduce fuel shipments and power to Gaza, as a way of pressuring Gaza's Hamas rulers to halt rocket fire on Israeli border towns. - photo by Associated Press
    GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Mahmoud Qassem, a fishmonger, stores his wares on ice overnight in case the fridge shuts down. Suheil Shaban, 62, a diabetic with a bad knee, rarely leaves his ninth-floor apartment — he can’t trust the elevator to function. A pediatric hospital director says the generator he relies on is almost out of fuel.
    Blackouts dictate the rhythm of life in Gaza these days.
    The electricity flow has been temperamental for years, but rolling power cuts of at least eight hours a day are the norm since Israel began reducing fuel shipments in October to pressure Gaza’s Hamas rulers to halt rocket fire on Israeli border towns. Last week it went further, starting to trim the supply it delivers from its own power station across the border.
    Israel argues that ‘‘economic warfare’’ is less painful than an offensive against rocket squads that could kill hundreds. Human rights groups call it collective punishment of a population of 1.5 million and a violation of international law.
    Israel dismisses warnings of a humanitarian crisis as Hamas propaganda, saying Gazans can redistribute diminishing resources to keep hospitals, water wells and sewage treatment plants running. Gaza engineers say that’s often technically impossible.
    There’s no quick solution.
    Tiny Gaza has to import fuel, electricity and raw materials to survive, but Israel and Egypt are unwilling to open their borders as long as Hamas remains in power in Gaza. Yet Hamas has shown no signs of relenting, and has kept up the rocket attacks.
    Gaza’s electricity crisis began in June 2006 when Israeli warplanes bombed its only power plant, following the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-allied militants.
    The bombing gutted six transformers and led to months of blackouts, at first of up to 16 hours a day. The plant has since installed new, smaller transformers, and manager Rafiq Maliha said he can now produce up to one-third of Gaza’s needs — but only if he gets about 900,000 gallons of diesel fuel a week.
    The fuel is paid for by the European Union, a major donor to the Palestinians. But Israel is the sole supplier, and since it scaled back shipments, Maliha said he’s only getting enough to produce 55 megawatts — 25 megawatts short of capacity — and would have to shut down within two days if fuel shipments were halted.
    That happened three weeks ago after Israel sealed Gaza hermetically following heavy rocketing of its nearby towns. Parts of Gaza went dark until shipments resumed two days later. Hamas seized the moment, staging candlelight marches and — given extensive airtime by Arab TV stations — warned of an impending humanitarian disaster.
    Counting on widespread sympathy in the Arab world, Hamas blew down a border wall on Jan. 23, allowing hundreds of thousands of Gazans to swarm into Egypt. Many brought back gas for cars in plastic canisters, but the reserves aren’t expected to last long. Many gas stations are closed, in part because of a suppliers’ protest against the cutbacks, and traffic is light on Gaza roads.
    The border-busting gamble seems to have backfired, alienating Egypt, Hamas’ main conduit to the Arab world. The border has been resealed and Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, warned last week that anyone trying to cross illegally ‘‘will get his legs broken.’’ Whether he meant it literally is not known, but it’s a shocking illustration of the tensions that have flared between Hamas and Egypt.
    Hamas-Israel violence has also escalated in recent days. An Israeli woman died in a suicide bombing last week, the first such Hamas attack in Israel in three years. Israel stepped up air strikes, killing more than a dozen militants, and its defense minister said he would ‘‘intensify the other side’s losses.’’
    Israel’s sanctions date to Hamas’ election victory two years ago, intensified after the Islamic group seized control of Gaza by force in June, and has now culminated in the first cut in electricity from Israel.
    Ten Israeli power lines feed Gaza with roughly 120 megawatts. Over the next three weeks, 1.5 megawatts are to be cut, according to a Defense Ministry plan that survived a Supreme Court challenge by an alliance of Israeli human rights groups.
    Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio that the government won’t harm what he called Gaza’s minimum needs, but that Israel will ‘‘continue reducing what they get from us as much as possible.’’
    Israel says it’s no longer responsible for Gazan welfare since it withdrew 2 1/2 years ago. Others maintain that its responsibility endures as long as it controls access to the territory.
    Engineer Nidal Touman isn’t preoccupied with the legalities. He’s too busy improvising solutions and fielding calls from irate citizens whenever power falters. Bill collection is in anarchy, spare parts are lacking, and the system faces collapse, he said.
    Consumers have become vigilantes, Touman said. Some climb up electricity poles to weld shut disconnector boxes, while many hook up pirate power lines. His repair crews have been cursed and beaten, and this week four employees were held up hostage overnight to force them restore power.
    Shlomo Dror, the Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman, accuses Hamas of preventing the redirection of electricity to vital institutions to manufacture a crisis. But Touman says Gaza’s relatively simple grid can’t be fine-tuned to spare specific locations, such as hospitals.
    ‘‘Without a steady supply of electricity, hospitals cannot function, pumping stations and sewage systems fail, and access to clean water is denied,’’ British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement Friday, urging Israel to reverse its decision.
    Throughout the crisis, the power has stayed on in intensive care units and operating theaters, often with the help of generators. Dr. Anwar Khalil, head of the Nasser Pediatric Hospital in Gaza City, said that when fuel runs low, he switches from a large generator to a small one, to keep the neonatal and intensive care units going.
    During a visit Wednesday, three premature infants were lying in incubators and five older children hooked up to respirators. Khalil said he had a day’s supply of diesel left, and still had no word from the Health Ministry when the next delivery would be made.
    Suheil Shaban, 62, the high-rise resident, who’s had an artificial knee since a car accident nine years ago, said he rarely ventures out because he can’t make it up the stairs if the elevator goes out.
    He can only hope normality returns soon. ‘‘Electricity is like oxygen we need for our breathing,’’ he said. ‘‘You feel paralyzed without electricity.’’

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