In June 2017, the Israeli Government decided to reduce its electricity supply to Gaza by 40 per cent, upon a request from the Palestinian Authority. This decision resulted in an electricity crisis for the residents of Gaza, with households, schools and hospitals receiving only up to 4 hours of electricity per day.
In September 2017, among growing concern in relation to the continuing unlivable conditions that residents of Gaza were forced to survive in, LPHR published a Legal Q&A on the Gaza electricity crisis, detailing how the crisis had come about, the truly devastating impact that it has on all aspects of life for residents in Gaza and how both Israel and the Palestinian Authority were in violation of their obligations under international law through their respective punitive decisions.
It cannot be understated that the electricity crisis has borne a great cost. Hospitals, schools and houses have been unable to run properly due to the regular blackouts, and this has had a severe impact on all aspects of life in Gaza, from healthcare to water sanitation. In regard to water sanitation, the UN reported that as of December 2017, domestic water supply fell by 30 per cent, and the number of cases of diarrhoea reported among children rose by more than 80% since April 2017, an indicator that children were being exposed to unclean water. The UN also reported a 37% increase of untreated sewage released into the Gaza coastline.
The UK Government’s response to the unnecessary and punitive electricity crisis
In October 2017, LPHR wrote an urgent letter to the UK government, requesting that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office intervene and make representations to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that as a matter of urgency they should immediately rescind their respective decisions to reduce electricity to Gaza, in order to resolve the crisis. The response provided by the Right Hon Alistair Burt, Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, did not comment on our legal assessment of the actions of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The reply also did not comment on whether any of our requested steps were being taken to urge both parties to reverse the decision. This was despite an acknowledgement from Mr Burt that “There is an urgent need to address the terrible situation in Gaza”.
On 30 October 2017, two parliamentary questions were tabled to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by Sarah Champion MP, reflecting the issues raised in our letter. The first question requested clarity as to what representations, if any, had been made to Israel to rescind the decision regarding the reduction of electricity to Gaza. Her second question requested clarity of the same in relation to UK Government representations to the Palestinian Authority to rescind its decision. The responses indicated that the UK Government was not acting with sufficient conviction to immediately resolve the crisis in accordance with ensuring respect for international humanitarian law, in particular by stating that progress on the electricity crisis is contingent on a wider political agreement.
Minister Burt’s answer on 31 October 2017 in regard to Israel, stated:
“The UK remains gravely concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. I saw the extent of the electricity crisis first hand when I visited on 21 August. We continue to believe that the best solution to the electricity crisis is a political agreement. The UK continues to encourage both the Israelis and the Palestinians to take urgent steps to improve energy provision and infrastructure in Gaza. We most recently raised the need to take action on Gaza with the Israeli authorities on 23 October”.
Minister Burt’s answer on 1 November 2017 in regard to the Palestinian Authority, stated:
“We are aware that Israel reduced the power supply to Gaza in June this year following a request from the Palestinian Authority (PA), in the course of a dispute with Hamas. I visited Gaza on 21 August and saw the extent of the electricity crisis first hand. Our Consul-General to Jerusalem raised the humanitarian situation in Gaza with both President Abbas and Prime Minister Hamdallah recently. We welcome the agreement on 2 October setting out plans for the resumption of PA administrative control in Gaza. We have encouraged the Palestinian authorities to ensure that plans are in place for this transition, to meet the needs of the Gazan people and to ease their suffering.”
The reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah of October 2017
On 12 October 2017, a reconciliation agreement was brokered by Egypt, between rival groups Hamas (in Gaza) and Fatah (in the West Bank). As part of this agreement, Hamas agreed to hand over administrative control of Gaza, including the Rafah border crossing.
The decision of the Palestinian Authority to request a reduction in electricity supply to Gaza has been interpreted by experts as a punitive measure to force Hamas to enter negotiations. Indeed, it has been demanded by Hamas as part of the reconciliation negotiations that the Palestinian Authority lift the ‘sanctions’ imposed on Gaza, including the electricity cut.
However, despite this agreement being reached in October 2017, throughout November and December, residents of Gaza remained subject to the same amount of electricity as they did in June 2017 when the initial reduction decision was made. An illuminating infograph provided by Haaretz on 8 November 2017 (a month after the reconciliation agreement was reached) illustrated the number of hours of electricity provided in various areas of the Gaza Strip over the course of the previous day, with the majority of places still receiving only 4 hours of electricity.
Electricity crisis will persist despite last week’s announcement on restoring electricity supply
The Palestinian Authority announced last week that they would allow Israel to resume supplying the 50 megawatts of power that it had asked Israel to cut seven month earlier. The Israeli Government responded by stating that it will accede to this request to take effect from Monday 8 January 2018.
However, the Palestinian Authority has reportedly required for the first time that Gaza residents pay a collective monthly fee of 10 million shekels ($2.8m) to restore the electricity, which many residents will be unable to pay according to the head of a financial newspaper in Gaza. Moreover, a source for the Palestinian Authority has reportedly stated that “in reality the increase will be 25 megawatts, not 50 megawatts” as the cost will only cover one of the Gaza power plant’s two turbines, and that because of the high demand of winter “the power may only increase by one hour at most”.
These striking quotes underscore that despite the announcement last week, the electricity crisis is unlikely to be abated for the people of Gaza, and accordingly remains a critical issue requiring urgent resolution.
Need for the UK Government to act intensively on Gaza
LPHR believes it is imperative that the UK Government intensively works with its international partners, including through the EU and the UN, to persuade Israel and the Palestinian Authority to make swift and substantial progress to considerably improve electricity provision, and to alleviate the unlivable conditions caused principally by Israel’s illegal and punitive closure policy.
It must no longer be the case, that the urgent twin matters of ensuring compliance with legal obligations and providing sufficient relief to meet humanitarian need, be made subordinate to political progress, as has been the apparent position of the UK Government and the wider international community when it comes to their response to the ongoing grave humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Angelina Nicolaou, Tareq Shrourou