How many times a day do you think you use objects powered by electricity? Wake up, hit the alarm clock, open the fridge, make some coffee, and take your phone out of its charger. Within 15 minutes or so, you are up to four devices. It’s a resource we take utterly for granted, and power outages are so rare that having candles or torches around the house is unusual.
Now what would you do if you had fewer hours of electricity each day, limited electricity that stutters on and off unpredictably. What would you prioritise? Refrigeration or lighting? Charging your phone or boiling water?
The people of Gaza don’t have to guess what their choices would be. They are living in the middle of an engineered humanitarian crisis. Electricity has been slashed continuously since March and now it’s available for less than three hours a day and never at predictable times. On July 13, the last functioning power plant shut down. Children do their homework by candlelight. Families swelter in the summer heat. Food spoils and water tanks remain empty without electricity to pump. And of course the impact upon the provision of public services necessary to protect health and welfare is devastating.
Without the power necessary to treat wastewater, raw, untreated sewage is currently spilling out into Gaza’s beachfront. The water is not safe for swimmers, carrying disease and wreaking environmental destruction. More worryingly still, the Gazan desalination plants have ground to a halt. Potable water has always been an issue under siege, with battered infrastructure creaking under the needs of 2 million people. A staggering 97% of water in Gaza is undrinkable. What will happen when there is nothing drinkable, and people resort to contaminated water?
Hospitals are unable to care for their patients. Nowhere is the human cost more apparent. Within each (barely functioning) hospital ward, parents sit by children in ICUs hooked up to ventilators, dependent on old generators that could fail at any moment. Dialysis machines stutter and fail, with patients praying the electricity will not fail whilst they are undergoing treatments.
The electricity shortage has compounded the effects of medicine shortages due to the blockade. Drugs for cancer treatment are running low, and 34% of medicines deemed essential are out of stock. Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe but a catastrophe which is entirely preventable, because it is manmade.
The decision to cut electricity supply was made by Israel as part of a grotesque political strategy designed to impose suffering upon an entire population to diminish support for Hamas. Gaza has suffered under a land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel and supported by Egypt since 2007 in response to the election of a Hamas government the previous year. The policy was recently described by a Harvard scholar as a policy of de-development which was “deliberate, considered and purposeful.”
A UN report in 2015 said that unless the blockade as lifted Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. The devastating impact of the blockade has been compounded by 3 major Israeli military assaults which together have killed 3,745 Palestinians and wounded over 17,000. The last assault in 2014 had a devastating effect on Gaza’s infrastructure with 78 hospitals and clinics, seven schools and nearly 18,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Less than half the money pledged by the international community to rebuild Gaza has been received. Tens of thousands remain homeless.
The latest decision to cut electricity, which may push Gaza over the edge, was made after urging from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, as part of a power struggle between the two Palestinian factions. But whilst Mahmoud Abbas must take his share of accountability for embarking on such a strategy, regardless of cost, the responsibility, legally and morally, clearly rests with Israel.
Under international law, Israel has an obligation to ensure the welfare of the occupied people. The Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that the occupying power must protect the wounded, sick, enable the free passage of medicines and essential foodstuffs, enable medical teams to provide assistance, and refrain from imposing collective punishment.
But the international community must take its share of responsibility for its failure to place any pressure upon Israel. UK government leaders as far back as David Cameron have condemned the blockade and called for it to be lifted, with Cameron famously describing Gaza as the world’s largest prison. But there has been a consistent failure to match words with action. The price of this failure of will is being paid daily by Gazans. The question is what will it take before the world acts. Medical authorities have warned for some time of the risks of a severe cholera outbreak in Gaza, their warning coming before the latest worsening of the crisis via the electricity cut.
PSC supports the Palestinian call for a programme of boycott, divestment, and sanctions until Israel lives up to its obligations under international law. Do we really need to wait for bodies to pile up on the streets of Gaza before the world takes action, to force Israel to end the blockade and allow Gazans to begin to live a normal life?
Ben Jamal is the Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the largest UK civil society organisation dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights.