Hand on the Switch

Sewage in Wadi Gaza, with Gaza’s sole power plant in the background. Photo: Gisha

Sewage in Wadi Gaza, with Gaza’s sole power plant in the background. Photo: Gisha

Gaza welcomed 2017 with some of the largest demonstrations seen in years. The masses were driven out to the streets by the electricity crisis, which peaked this winter when supply dropped to just four hours per day. Even Gaza residents, hardened by years of intermittent supply and no more than eight straight hours of service, followed by eight-hour blackouts, found it difficult to cope with the new low.

For most of us, outside the Strip, electricity is a given. We can scarcely imagine life hounded by the constant rumble of generators; life organized around the urgency of doing as many household chores as possible in the few hours in which electricity is available – laundry, pumping water (without electricity, the pumps that bring water to the tap don’t work), heating water, and charging cell phones and laptops. Without electricity, people in Gaza live their lives under low, emergency lighting or by candlelight, which has proven on more than one occasion to be a deadly hazard.

The media reported arrests by Gaza authorities during the demonstrations, the exchange of accusations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and emergency funds arriving from Turkey and Qatar, but the obvious point was never made: This crisis was one among many over decades during which Gaza’s infrastructure has been neglected, bombed, and left in disrepair due to lack of planning and funding, and chronic shortages in parts and equipment essential for maintenance and repairs.

A new report by Gisha, Hand on the Switch: Who’s Responsible for Gaza’s Infrastructure Crisis? takes an in-depth look at the grim state of Gaza’s electricity, water, sewage and communications infrastructure. The report describes how we got to this point and, for the first time, outlines the responsibility shared among the various actors at play in the Gaza Strip today. The report shares short-, medium- and long-term solutions, culled by experts, to prevent collapse, but, more importantly, to help maintain and develop critical civilian infrastructure.

The responsibility for the dismal state of Gaza’s infrastructure is shared among many actors: the Hamas government in the Strip, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and the international community. One actor, however, stands out above all the others with its 50 years of consistent control over Gaza and its major influence, both past and present, over so many aspects of life there – the State of Israel.

Over the years in which Israel maintained a constant military presence inside the Gaza Strip, along with civilian settlers, Gaza developed a dependency on Israel for supply of electricity, water and communications lines. Civilian infrastructure was not properly developed to keep pace with population growth and modern advances. After 38 years of presence inside the Strip, Israel’s military disengaged to the perimeter, leaving behind dilapidated infrastructure but maintaining control of many aspects of life in Gaza, including the accessibility of vital parts and equipment, whose entry it monitors, and even forbids. When the closure was tightened, a decade ago, restrictions on movement reached their peak as part of what Israel called “economic warfare” against Gaza residents. The policy of harming the economy has undermined the ability of local Palestinian actors to invest in infrastructure and left donors and aid agencies scrambling to prevent disaster.

Israel controls communications frequencies in Gaza and prevents its residents from advancing to third-generation cellular communications technology. It regularly refuses access to engineers and other professionals who need to enter and exit Gaza for maintenance work or to receive training outside the Strip. Israel has damaged civilian infrastructure, including deliberately, during repeated rounds of hostilities in the Strip, thus deterring donors from investing in expensive new infrastructure for fear it would be targeted in the future. Many aspects of Israel’s control in Gaza, including its duration over 50 years, mean that Israel has a legal and moral obligation to improve the state of affairs. Israel’s accountability for the situation and a legal analysis of the responsibility of other actors are addressed at length in a special section of the report.

The state of infrastructure, as presented in the report, is dire and requires immediate mobilization lest it reach even more critical levels. Immediate improvements can and must be made. There is no reason to deny Gaza residents a dignified standard of living. In fact, there is broad consensus, including among Israeli policy-makers, that developing Gaza’s infrastructure serves Israel’s interests as well.

Given Israel’s enhanced responsibility, Gisha calls on the Israeli government to take a leading role in working together with all parties to advance the development of Gaza’s infrastructure. None of the actors, and certainly not the Government of Israel, can disavow their responsibility for a situation in which two million people are denied the infrastructure required for normal, dignified life.

To read the full report in PDF version click here

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