Egyptian fighting squeezes the Gaza Strip

Shortage of cooking gas and fuel has considerably slowed life in the Palestinian enclave.

Palestinians fill tankers with fuel on the Egypt border370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Palestinians fill tankers with fuel on the Egypt border370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Ahmed Abu Hamda, a journalist and producer in the Gaza Strip, had some work to do in the morning. But as happens frequently in Gaza, there was an electricity blackout because the area’s sole power plant is running low on fuel.
And like most Palestinian families, Abu Hamda has a generator. But now he has no fuel for his generator either.
“I just couldn’t do my work,” he told The Media Line. “Electricity is off now between 9 and 12 hours every day.”
There is also a growing shortage of gasoline in Gaza where most of the 120 gas stations have closed. When some fuel does arrive, the Hamas government divides it into three parts – first for the hospitals; then for the power plant; and only then for the gas stations.
“Some people wait many hours in line to get gasoline and then it runs out before they can get some,” Abu Hamda says. “In addition, there is no cement at all in Gaza and the construction sector has completely shut down.”
There is also a shortage of cooking gas. Much of what there is comes into Gaza through a network of hundreds of smuggling tunnels that run underground between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. The underground passage ways are used bring in all kinds of consumer goods, but also for weapons and drugs.
Since Hamas forcibly wrestled control of the Gaza Strip from its rival Palestinian faction Fatah in 2007, an economy has developed from the tunnel trade, with taxes being imposed on the goods that smuggled in to the benefit of the Hamas-controlled fiscal infrastructure.  Egyptian gas, cement, and cooking fuel are much cheaper than the same product made in Israel and legally imported.
But for the past three weeks, the Egyptian army has closed the tunnels, fearing gunmen could come from Gaza into Sinai.
“I have one cylinder attached to the stove and it’s almost empty,” Abu Hamda said. “I only have one backup, and when it runs out I won’t be able to replace it.”
The timing is especially bad, he says, as the holy month of Ramadan starts tomorrow. Muslims fast each day from dawn to dusk and at night enjoy elaborate celebratory meals called “iftar.”
The Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza, which is used only for people, not goods, has also been closed for five days because of the unrest surrounding the overthrow Mohamed Morsi. Thousands of Palestinians are stranded in Egypt and have no way to return home to Gaza. Those seeking to travel the reverse route are also stuck.
“After years of blockade the situation in Gaza was already dire and unsustainable. The closure of Rafah can only make things worse,” Chris Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, told The Media Line. “But to be clear, Rafah is not a commercial trans-shipment point. It is mainly for people. So the closure of Rafah creates a lot of fear and frustration among people in Gaza, as it is one of the few ways they can leave and go abroad. That is one of many reasons why we call on all parties to end the blockade of Gaza which is a collective punishment and illegal under international law.”
The manager of the Rafah terminal told The Media Line that it would be open on Wednesday for Gaza residents still in Egypt to be able to return home and for those needing medical treatment to be able to leave.
Israel says it is doing everything it can to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said Israel has allowed 310 truckloads of goods to pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing point as well as 190 tons of gas.
Israel has frequently closed Kerem Shalom in response to rockets fired into its territory from Gaza. In addition, Palestinians say the Israeli gas is more than double the price of the gas that used to enter through the tunnels. They also say that even before the Morsi-related unrest in Egypt there was a growing shortage of fuel and cooking gas.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) says it is “deeply concerned for the deterioration of humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, especially in light of the closure of the Rafah International Closing Point, which has been the sole outlet for the movement of the population of the Gaza Strip to the outside world.”
There is also increasing food insecurity in Gaza, meaning a growing number of Palestinians struggle to feed their families. Close to one million Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on aid from UNRWA, which provides basic necessities such as flour, sugar, and cooking oil.
“High food prices and low wages mean that 1.6 million Palestinians don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Ertharin Cousin, the Executive Director of the World Food Program said on a recent visit to the West Bank. “Yet food security IS security. Food security is a vital component for sustained peace across the region.”
That statistic refers to both the West Bank and Gaza.
Many Palestinians in Gaza have family ties to Egypt, and are closely watching events there. At the same time, they worry that their situation in Gaza will continue to deteriorate.