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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fuel Crisis in Gaza: Cutting Off Life

Fuel Crisis in Gaza: Cutting Off Life

By: Ruqaya Izzidien

Palestinian school children do their homework on candle light during a power cut in Gaza City on 27 March 2012. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Abed)

June 15, 2012

The hum of the domestic jungle disappears in a flash. Fridges and televisions shut off instantly and the streets fall eerily dark. Gaza rarely falls silent naturally, but during the nightly blackouts, it becomes soundless – at least temporarily. The silence is invariably broken by an overhead F-16, a drone or – as has occurred several times in the last month – an airstrike.

Since February, Palestinians in Gaza have been experiencing the worst fuel crisis to hit the territory in living memory. In April, Gaza’s only electricity plant shut down three of their four generators. Last week, a vital fuel delivery from Qatar was held up for several days. Meanwhile the electricity plant’s final generator puttered out of service. At its peak, it could only supply a maximum four hours of electricity a day.

Although Gaza has received the long-awaited fuel delivery, extensive blackouts still grip the territory and many fear that the damage has already been done. Worst hit by the crisis are Gaza’s local industries. Although they managed to survive a siege, workers now fear continuing shortages may end what little is left of Gaza’s self-sufficiency.

Khalil Shaheen is the head of economic and social rights at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. He explained, "Farmers don’t even have fuel to pump water through their irrigation systems or to fertilize their produce. They are unable to operate their small machinery and tractors, and this is the harvest season. Even providing light in the house is a problem."

This forces Gaza’s traders into an un-winnable quagmire; they cannot store imported products because they have no fuel to power their refrigerators. At the same time, the stock of seasonal produce – including sardines, wheat, barley, cantaloupes, tomatoes and apricots – is severely depleted, both in quality and quantity.

Majda Qudeih is a farming coordinator who helps farmers in Abasaan, southern Gaza to harvest in areas close to the Israeli-imposed no-go zone. She explained,
"The fuel crisis affects all farmers, of course. It’s currently wheat harvest season and they need petrol for the wheat threshing machine, which separates the stalk from the grain. But there’s just no fuel."

The fuel crisis has had a damaging effect on more than just food. 21-year-old Ahmed Naim Abidrabu comes from a family of flower farmers in Rafah. The once prestigious trade of flower farming has become almost a niche, as Israel permits only a fraction of the produce to leave Gaza for trade. The flowers that remain are sold at rock-bottom prices to the local market. But this year many flowers, without fuel, wilt, die, and end up as animal fodder.

Abidrabu explained, "The fuel shortage has really had a damaging effect on the flower farming industry. As soon as we cut the flowers, they are supposed to be put straight into a refrigerator for a couple of days, awaiting transportation to Israel. If they make it through the border they lie in transit there for around 5 or 6 days, before they end up on the Dutch high street around 10 days later. With no refrigeration, the flowers won’t last 10 days so we can’t sell them. If they wilt and die before being sold, we as farmers have to make up the cost."

Mahmoud Elhissi is a 25-year-old fisherman from Gaza City. During the summer, he fishes at night, setting off at 4pm and returning at 7am.

"We suffer greatly under the fuel shortage because fuel is the only way for fishing boats to get out to sea. This crisis affects us more than most, first it hinders our work, and then it affects us at home, where we have no fuel for generators to give us electricity and light."

Elhissi explained that in over the last six months, fuel prices have doubled, from 2.6 shekels (70 cents) per liter to 5 shekels.

Currently, under rations allocated by Gaza’s authorities, Elhissi is only able to buy 80 to 100 liters of fuel to last him for three days. Before the crisis, he would use up to 500 liters. This has also driven up the price of fish, but the margin for profit has decreased drastically. The current fuel shortage has hit Gaza in the middle of sardine season. Currently, Gazan-caught sardines cannot compete with sardines imported from Egypt, which sell for around one quarter of the price.

Elhissi explained, "Most of the sardines are out at around six miles, but by order of Israel, we have to stay within three miles. Three miles - that’s not enough room for me to swim in! But imagine if they allowed us to go to six. Imagine the sardines we’d catch!"

Rami Habboush owns a grocery shop near Gaza’s port. He explained the drastic effect the power crisis has had on his business.

"The biggest problem we have is powering our generator. Over the last two days, we’ve had no electricity for twelve hours and now we have no petrol to fill the generator.

With no generator, the fridge and freezer cut out and everything inside spoils. Frozen meat, vegetables and fish, as well as cheese, yogurt and milk all depend on the electricity, and these days, they go off."

Habboush stressed that it’s not just refrigerated food that spoils. "Without electricity, we cannot power the air conditioner, so the chocolates melt. When the temperature gets too high, even dry beans, lentils and chickpeas go bad."

He explained that for grocery store owners, winter can be kinder, offering a natural cooling system for frozen and refrigerated products, but explained, "Ironically, we actually had a relatively reasonable fuel supply at that time."

During the peak of a fuel crisis, Palestinians in Gaza often need to exercise their resourcefulness. Taxi drivers are known to fill up their tanks with corn oil when their gasoline runs out. One motorcyclist even siphoned fuel out of his engine to fill up a friend’s generator during a blackout.

In a nation that depends on foreign imports, this fuel shortage is a double-blow. Without fuel, debilitated farming and fishing industries battle to stay afloat. As Gazans struggle to pull away from dependency on foreign imports, many of the pre-packaged imports end up unrefrigerated and spoiled anyway.

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