WEST BANK: The finger-pointing over who’s leaving Gaza in the dark is back

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Hamas advisor Yousef Rezka said Monday that worsening brown-outs in the Gaza Strip are being caused by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which wants to “to punish the residents of Gaza for their support for Hamas.” Hamas took control of the seaside enclave three years ago after forcing out Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ forces.

Until late last year, the European Union footed the bill for the industrial fuel Gaza’s privately owned Palestine Electricity Company used to buy from Israel to run its turbines. In a change of heart and policy, the EU decided to pass the buck to the Palestinian Authority and gave Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, the money instead and told him to take care of this headache himself.

Fayyad continued to pay the bill for several months until he decided that unless the residents of Gaza started paying for the electricity they consume, he was not going to give them free electricity.

His energy authority chief, Omar Kittaneh, said that he had noticed an abuse of the free electricity. “People were sitting around electric heaters in the open air,” he said in a news conference in Ramallah last week.

In Gaza, the Electricity Distribution Company, a semiofficial company in charge of power distribution to the entire coastal region and for collecting bills for power consumed, said on Saturday that a power generator that was supplying parts of Gaza with electricity was forced to shut down because of a lack of fuel.

While Gaza needs 300 megawatts of electricity, said the company, the loss of the turbine, one of three power sources for the Gaza Strip, reduced the power supply to only 137 megawatts. As a result, the company was forced as of Saturday to distribute the supply it gets directly from Egypt and Israel, the two other sources, to the entire strip, ending up providing each area in Gaza with only six straight hours of power, then cutting it for 12 hours, and then resuming for six more hours.

It warned that power stoppages for long hours will have dire consequences for the water supply and medical facilities.

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah blamed the distribution company and Hamas for the crisis.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said Sunday that the distribution company’s failure to transfer customer payments from June led to the fuel shortage and power failure.

In the last five months, the Palestinian Authority paid more than $20 million of the total electricity bill for the Gaza Strip, which amounts to almost $21.5 million a month, he said. The Gaza company transferred only $1 million a month to the Palestinian Authority, but in June, it did not transfer anything, Khatib said.

“It would have been possible to avert the crisis if the company had transferred the money as it did in the past months,” he said. “The company and those behind it are either unable to do their work and collect the bills, at least from those capable of paying for this service, or they collect the money and do not transfer it.”

The fuel crisis for the electricity company is “deliberate for political reasons,” said Khatib, accusing Hamas of “exploiting the people’s suffering to win sympathy and to incite against the PA.”

Distribution company officials said they collect about $5 million a month from customers and spend around $1 million a month in expenses. The rest of the money is unaccounted for. The Palestinian Authority and the company had agreed in April that the company would pay the Palestinian Authority $4 million a month for the fuel supply, which it has not done so far.

Human rights organizations urged both sides to find ways to overcome the crisis for the sake of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

The Brussels-based European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, which campaigns against the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, has urged the European Union to resume direct payment of the fuel bill for Gaza’s power generator rather than giving the money to the Palestinian Authority. The EU responded to these calls saying that the Palestinian Authority has asked that all donors’ aid intended for the Palestinian people should go through its treasury, explaining that it gave the Palestinian Authority the right to decide on the priorities for spending this money.

--Maher Abukhater in Ramallah