Image: Palestinians in the dark
Khalil Hamra  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS
Palestinians use propane to light their restaurant in Gaza City on Sunday  after the electricity was cut.
updated 8/20/2007 2:33:52 PM ET 2007-08-20T18:33:52

Electricity in Gaza on Monday became the latest battleground in the struggle between the coastal strip’s Islamic Hamas rulers and their Fatah rivals, who have accused Hamas of pocketing electricity revenues.

The losers are hundreds of thousands of Gazans, who have been plunged into darkness as European donors cut off key electricity aid.

On Sunday, the European Union stopped paying for fuel to power generators that produce electricity for at least half of Gaza’s population of 1.4 million. On Monday, it said the payments would not resume because it had received word that Hamas was “diverting” electricity revenues.

“We are ready to resume our support to the Gaza power plant within hours once we receive the appropriate assurances that all the funds will be exclusively used for the benefit of the Gaza population,” the European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — said in a statement.

Hamas has controlled Gaza since it vanquished Fatah gunmen in fierce fighting in June. The Fatah-led government that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set up in the West Bank has accused Hamas of siphoning off electricity revenues.

“Hamas is collecting all the electricity fees and never pays the costs of the electricity,” said Jawwad Hirzallah, deputy minister of economy. “The Europeans were paying $10 million that Hamas collects from the people and doesn’t pay the costs. So the European Union found itself paying the electricity company, while Hamas was pocketing the revenues.”

But the Islamic militant group — which last month arrested the electric company’s Fatah-affiliated executive director on corruption charges — has denied taking the utility’s money. And it accused the government in Ramallah of trying to discredit it through the electricity crisis.

“The government in Gaza is not involved in the operations of the (electric) company,” said Ala Araj, a Hamas adviser. “In the next few days, the government will announce the investigations of the former director of the company, who stole money the EU donated.”

At least 700,000 without power
In recent weeks, Hamas has been going door to door in Gaza ordering residents to pay long overdue electricity bills. While Hamas denies that it controls the electricity company, Fatah insists it does — citing the director’s arrest as evidence.

Jehad Hamad, a political analyst based in Gaza, said electricity is one of many battlegrounds the two sides are using to try to gain the upper hand.

The Ramallah government, Hamad added, might be worried that Hamas has uncovered proof that Fatah officials skimmed off money from the electrical company in the past.

“Electricity is a ‘hot-button’ issue,” he said.

The suspension of the EU fuel payments dealt a harsh blow to at least 700,000 Palestinians who live in central Gaza. Electricity had already been cut back sharply last week after Israel closed a fuel crossing into the coastal territory, citing security concerns. Israel reopened the passage Sunday, but the plant’s Israeli fuel supplier didn’t deliver fuel to the power plant, on instructions from the European Union.

Although private generators and sporadic supplies from the Israeli and Egyptian companies that power the rest of the strip have eased the blackout, affected neighborhoods and cities have had only a few hours of electricity a day.

Generators a precious commodity
Power outages are nothing new in Gaza, where electricity reserves are in short supply. But the long hours in darkness have sent residents scrambling to improvise.

People were going from neighborhood to neighborhood to charge mobile phones and laptop computers in anticipation of outages. And generators have become a precious commodity.

Tamer al-Bagga, manager of a beachside cafe, said his two generators have caused his business to flourish, as people flock in to watch TV, eat hot meals and escape the heat of their homes.

“No one is sharing their generators,” he said, saying the price of generators has gone up 70 percent since he bought his last year. “They are more expensive now and fuel is scarce. It’s every man for himself.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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