EU delays fuel payments to Gaza Strip

600,000 lack electricity; Hamas, Fatah trade accusations over crisis.

By
August 17, 2007 19:36
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Hamas and Fatah traded accusations Sunday over responsibility for the lack of fuel that prompted the Gaza Generating Company to shut down all four of its generators, plunging nearly 600,000 Palestinians into darkness over the weekend. Fuel deliveries set for Sunday were canceled when the European Union delayed payment of the bill to Dor Alon Energy, the plant's Israeli supplier, pending a study of the situation. Hamas officials in Gaza City accused two ministers in the Fatah-dominated government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad of "inciting" the Europeans not to pay for the fuel. Yahya Musa, a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip, said the PA's Justice and Information Minister Riad al-Malki and Transportation Minister Sa'di al-Kurunz told the Europeans that Hamas had taken control of the electricity company, a charge he denied. "These two ministers are responsible for the fact that one-fourth of the residents of the Gaza Strip don't have electricity," he said. "The Fayad government is trying to fight Hamas by depriving the Palestinians of electricity." Malki denied the allegations and said Hamas was responsible for the power stoppage. Hamas, he added, had "occupied" the electricity company and stolen its money. He said the Europeans decided to cut off funding for the fuel used by the plant because of Hamas's actions. "The only solution to this problem is that Hamas end its coup in the Gaza Strip," Malki said. "Hamas is fully responsible for the crisis." According to Dor Alon Energy, the fuel is ordered by the PA in Ramallah and is paid for by the EU. In a statement to the media, it said it stopped a planned shipment on Sunday after notification from the EU that it would not foot the bill at this time. "Fuel supplies will resume if and when the European Union or another credible source notifies us that it will guarantee payment for the power station's fuel," the company said. The EU told The Jerusalem Post it hoped to resume payment on Monday. "I hope we will be able to restart tomorrow, but I do not have this as a guarantee," said Mario Mariani who heads the EU's Temporary International Mechanism, which spends 6.5 million euros a month to send fuel to a power plant that provides 25 percent of the electricity in Gaza. It does so through a special program that bypasses the Hamas government. The payment delay followed an IDF decision on Thursday to halt fuel shipments through the Nahal Oz crossing east of Gaza City for security reasons, though the IDF says it would have allowed it through on Sunday, had the payment been authorized. "Following the closure of Nahal Oz, we decided to look into the whole setup of the program from a security point of view and from a financial point of view," said Mariani. He made no mention of the accusations leveled by Hamas and Fatah against each other but spoke instead of accountability. "Fuel is very sensitive and it is a precious commodity," said Mariani. "We need to know where the taxpayers' money is going. "I wanted to carry out a reassessment of our different mechanisms of control before I restart." The EU remained committed to helping provide Gaza with fuel, Mariani said. Both Israeli and EU officials told the Post that the temporary closure of Nahal Oz and the payment reassessment were routine and had occurred in the past. The problem, they said, arose when the Gaza Generating Company announced on Friday that it was out of fuel. It was a statement that surprised them. "We do not understand why the power plant was shut down. According to our data there should have been a limited stock of fuel," Mariani said. He was backed up in his statement by Shlomo Dror, the spokesman for the coordinator of government activities in the territories. At no point was Israel notified that the plant was low on fuel, said Dror. "They [the Palestinian] didn't tell us there was a problem. We heard for the first time on Friday from a press conference," Dror said. He estimated that based on the plant's reserve capacity it should have been able to hold on for another five days. "But for whatever reason this storage is empty," he told the Post. Both Dror and Mariani said the reports of the electricity problems caused by the shut down were overblown, given that 75% of the electricity in Gaza has not been impacted by the latest fuel problem. "Saying that there is no electricity in Gaza is a gross overstatement of the impact," said Mariani. Dror said that 70% of Gaza's electricity was supplied by Israel and another 5% by Egypt. But John Ging, who heads Gaza operations for the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency, said the impact on the Strip's estimated 1.4 million people went beyond the 25% shortfall, because some 600,000 domestic users were on the power grid of the plant that shut down. Many of those users have had no electricity at all since Friday while others have received it for only several hours a day, said Ging. Electricity in Gaza was problematic in general and often intermittent, he said. "Electricity is not available 24/7 anywhere in Gaza," said Ging. He blamed the lack of a fuel reserve on the problems at the crossings. The fuel shipments that have gone through, he said, had only satisfied Gaza's immediate fuel needs and had not allowed for the creation of a reserve. "Their [the plant's] reserves have been used up and not replenished, so for the last two or more months they have been working on a couple of days [reserves] only," said Ging. As one who has been warning in general about the lack of reserve supplies in Gaza, he said, he found the current shortage frustrating. "It comes as no surprise, because we have been highlighting this for some time now." As the electricity shortages in Gaza dragged on for a third straight day, nerves were wearing thin. The din of private generators outside every shop on Gaza City's main commercial street filled the air, as Naim Hamdan, a civil engineer, recounted how he sent home his staff of 25 to conserve fuel. Grocery store owner Fawaz Khalil said NIS 3,000 worth of cheese and milk spoiled because his generator wasn't powerful enough to keep his refrigerator cold. "People have started coming to ask for candles and flashlights," Khalil said. "I hope that selling candles and batteries and flashlights will help me make up for the loss of the cheese and milk." Gaza Generating's chief executive, Rafik Malikha, urged all relevant officials "to end this crisis situation in Gaza now." Although Israeli and Egyptian power companies have stepped into the breach, affected neighborhoods and cities will be without electricity at least 12 hours a day, Malikha said. AP contributed to this report.

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