How Gaza was made into an unlivable place

What is it like to live in a place with a few hours of electricity a day and eight hours of water every four days?

Palestinians gather in front of the gate of Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza during a protest
Palestinians gather in front of the gate of Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza during a protest against the blockade calling for reopening of the crossing [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Gaza and Tel Aviv lie only 75 kilometres apart from each other. They share the same sandy topography and the same intensely hot Levantine summers. But the similarities largely end there. Any recent satellite image taken at night over the eastern Mediterranean would show an incandescent blaze for Tel Aviv, and only wan pinpricks of light further down the shore in Gaza.

Gaza is in the third month of an externally enforced reduction of its already meagre electrical power supply. The enclave of two million people would ordinarily require about 450 megawatts (MW) of electricity daily for around-the-clock power. However, over much of the past decade, as part of the tight Israeli blockade of Gaza, its power supplies have fluctuated around 200MW, resulting in persistent blackouts. But over the past several months, according to the Israeli human rights organisation Gisha, Gaza’s supply each day has varied from 140MW to an all-time low of 70MW, lengthening the blackouts and the human suffering.

The immediate cause of the power crisis lies with the dispute between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas over fuel taxation. This prompted the PA to request the Israel reduce the 120MW it sold daily down to around 70MW, and Israel has complied. 

A second source of electricity is Gaza’s sole power plant, which can only produce 50-55MW daily (on those occasions when it has been able to import fuel from Egypt). The power plant was badly damaged by Israeli bombings in 2006 and again in 2014, and Israel has restricted the entry of replacement parts into Gaza. If the plant was fully operational, it could produce around 140MW.

The third supply source for power to Gaza comes from Egypt, which provides around 28MW daily, although there are ongoing disruptions to its availability. And the fourth source is individual solar panels and generators, which are available only to the well-off.

The social consequences of this extraordinary power crisis are severe. Households without access to generators or solar panels – which is most of Gaza – have between 4-6 hours of electricity at the best of times, followed by 12-16 hours of blackouts. Hospitals rely on over-extended generators, and have to ration power. Workplaces are shuttering. More than 100 million litres of untreated sewage spills daily into the Mediterranean, fouling the beaches and the fishing grounds. Food must be bought daily and consumed quickly. Internet service – for almost all Gazans, their only link to the outside world – is spotty. And there is little available power for air conditioning and fans to combat the sweltering summer heat.

The background to the Gaza crisis

The United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory recently released an incisive report on Gaza (PDF), focusing on the humanitarian impact of Israel’s 10-year blockade and the internal political divisions among the Palestinians. Its findings are bleak: Gaza’s impoverishment is entirely the product of human decisions, and not the fate of nature.

The year 2007 was ground zero for Gaza. In July of that year, Israel imposed its comprehensive blockade on the Strip, and declared it to be an “enemy entity”. Life before 2007 in Gaza was already very difficult, but now it has become harsh and unremitting. Gaza, which was once said to be the future “Singapore of the Middle East”, has become a metaphor for immiseration. 

INTERACTIVE: 24 Hours in Gaza

According to the UN report, between 2006 and 2016, Gaza’s real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita declined by 5.3 percent, while it grew in the occupied West Bank by 48.5 percent. Poverty has increased from 30 percent of the population in 2004 to around 40 percent today. Gaza suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, at 41 percent by the end of 2016. Over 60 percent of Gazans between 20-24 years old are without work, and the unemployment rate for women between 2006 and 2016 increased sharply from 35 percent to 64 percent. More than 60 percent of the population in 2017 was partly or wholly dependent on humanitarian assistance. According to other reports, gender-based violence, divorce rates, suicide and drug use are all on the rise.

Gaza’s traditional economic sectors are withering. Agriculture, forestry, fishing and manufacturing have all declined in economic size, and the principal source of growth, tragically, has come from the reconstruction of the neighbourhoods destroyed during the three conflicts with Israel over the past nine years.

Israel controls what leaves and enters Gaza, with the average number of truckloads of goods exiting Gaza in the first five months of 2017 less than a third of what it was during the first half of 2007. “Gaza’s economic trajectory over the past decade”, the UN report stated, “is a strong indicator of the ongoing de-development in the Strip.”

The situation of drinking water in Gaza is at a desperate level. The unsustainable over-extraction of Gaza’s coastal aquifer has caused the intrusion of seawater, with 96 percent of the groundwater now unsuitable for human consumption.

Half of the population has access to water for only eight hours every four days, and another 30 percent receives water for eight hours every three days. Trucked water is 15-20 times more expensive than network water, and it is unreliable in terms of quality. As with other scarce goods, it is the poor and vulnerable who are affected the most. A new water agreement between Israel and the PA, announced recently, may bring some future relief, but Gaza’s best bet is water self-reliance through desalination plants and secure electricity sources.

The UN report reminds the world that Israel remains the occupying power in Gaza, as it controls its land, sea and air borders, even if it no longer has “boots on the ground”. As such, it retains legal obligations to the population to ensure its health, dignity and well-being. In particular, the report emphasises that “the numerous restrictions imposed by Israel on both movements of people and goods into and out of Gaza impede the enjoyment of a range of human rights such as the right to freedom of movement and … the right to health, education, work, adequate standards of living and family life”. The other parties that share responsibility for Gaza – Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt – also have a legal duty to observe human rights and humanitarian standards, which has not always been kept in recent years.

READ MORE: Will Mohammed Dahlan return to lead Gaza?

In 2012, the UN issued a report entitled “Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place?” (PDF). If that report was gloomy, the new UN report is desolate. It concludes that Gaza, in the interceding five years, has endured a “downward spiral of de-development, while the people of Gaza are caught in a cycle of humanitarian need and perpetual aid dependency”.

With less than three years before 2020, the report warns that, unless the present path is radically altered, Gaza will become “more isolated and more desperate” with the chances of more devastating conflicts and an even more flattened economy on the horizon. Should this happen, the hope for political reconciliation among the Palestinians and an enduring peace between Israel and Palestine will become that much more elusive. Will those nighttime satellite images of Gaza soon be able to detect any lights at all?

Michael Lynk is the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. He was appointed in 2016. He also teaches at the Faculty of Law, Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.