Some friends threw me a surprise birthday party last month. They placed a chocolate cake lit with candles before me and told me to make a wish for the year ahead. I immediately blurted out, “24-hour electricity and air-conditioning.” They laughed and suggested I wish for something more realistic.
Here in the Gaza Strip, 24-hour electricity has been a distant dream for well over a decade. Israel’s bombings of power plants, its closing of the Gaza border in 2007 and fallout from the split between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which governs Gaza, have meant chronic power outages. Not long ago, we had adjusted to eight hours of electricity a day. Now even that seems a luxury.
Our power comes from three sources: Israel, Egypt and our single functional power plant, which runs on fuel. Before the current crisis, these sources provided roughly half of Gaza’s electricity needs. Then there was a dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas over payment for the fuel, both refused to pay, and the plant shut down in April, reducing the overall supply by about 25%.
In June, Israel acceded to a Palestinian Authority request to cut the electricity it provided to Gaza in order to “dry up” funds to Hamas. This reduced supply by another 30%. That same month, Egypt began providing the fuel needed for the power plant, and the plant reopened. Even so, we are living with a new norm of four hours of electricity a day or less.
Those four hours structure our days. When we don’t have power, life is on hold. We struggle with candles, flashlights and, if we can afford them, unreliable generators. We wait for the sound of an electric water pump to tell us we’re on the clock. I turn on all the light switches before I go to sleep to ensure that I don’t miss the electricity. When I hear the water pump and see the lights go on, I jump out of bed. Life becomes a race as we use every last minute to do laundry, finish urgent work tasks, enjoy cold drinking water. Then the lights go out again.
No electricity means trying to sleep in 95-degree weather without fans or air conditioning, but with the constant humming of generators. It means showering with only a trickle of water, scrambling to keep phones and laptops charged and never buying more than a day’s worth of meat or milk. It means always taking the stairs to avoid the risk of getting stuck in an elevator. It means planning your outings around blackouts and checking the electricity schedule for a friend’s neighborhood before visiting.
I have it better than most. Some children must do their homework by candlelight because their families cannot afford generators. Small business owners, already struggling, have had to dramatically reduce operations and use expensive generators to keep the lights on. For many families, swimming in the sea offers the only real relief from the grim day-to-day in Gaza, and they now must contend with spikes in sewage effluent as blackouts cripple treatment plants.
Kidney patients in need of dialysis, which requires an uninterrupted electrical supply, are at particular risk. Having no electricity makes life a struggle for everyone in Gaza; for the vulnerable, it can mean life or death.
To Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Gazans are pawns in a shameful quest for political domination. As the occupying power, Israel bears responsibility under international law to facilitate normal life for the people of Gaza. Hamas exercises internal control and is responsible for protecting our rights. The Palestinian Authority oversees millions in donor funds and should also protect our rights, including paying for vital services.
It’s a sign of just how much our horizons have shifted in Gaza that we dream less of the occupation ending, or the border reopening so that we might leave this 365-square-kilometer strip. These days we dream mostly about electricity. And our situation is certain to get worse. The United Nations’ coordinator for humanitarian activities, Robert Piper, has warned that the latest cuts are “likely to lead to a total collapse of basic services.”
The crisis we face is not the result of a natural disaster or some other act of God. It’s entirely man-made. Just as they put us in the dark, they could give us light with the flip of a switch.