Palestinians protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 12, 2017
Palestinians protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 12, 2017 © MOHAMMED ABED - AFP/File
Palestinians protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 12, 2017
Mike Smith
Last updated: January 19, 2017

Hamas halts electricity protests, but anger remains

The 25-year-old nicknamed Guevara because of his admiration for the Latin American revolutionary had returned to his home in Gaza after days of hiding, but was not giving up.

He had avoided home after a warning that Hamas security forces were looking for him due to his role as an organiser of recent protests over severe electricity shortages.

In a mock army jacket and with a Che Guevara-like beard, Mohammed Al-Taluli was being greeted by dozens of supporters from his neighbourhood of Jabalia, a crowded, overgrown refugee camp north of Gaza City.

"We are going to continue asking for our humanitarian demands," he said while seated at a plastic table in a room in his home he called his office.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, has managed to end a recent series of protests over the electricity crisis with a security crackdown and aid from Qatar used to purchase more fuel.

But frustration in places like Jabalia remains, and there are once again warnings that deteriorating conditions in the Palestinian enclave of two million people may be leading to a larger eruption of anger.

Gazans face electricity shortages all year, but the problem is exacerbated in winter and mid-summer, when power usage spikes.

The Hamas authorities in the coastal enclave usually provide electricity in eight-hour intervals, but supply was reduced to four hours this month.

'No security solution'

Protests began modestly, with dozens of people holding candles, before culminating on January 12 with thousands marching in Jabalia towards the electricity company.

Hamas security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowd, carried out arrests and hit an AFP photographer who required stitches to his face.

Further protests were prevented by a show of force by Hamas security.

Perhaps sensing the urgency, Hamas sought help, including from Turkey and Qatar, which agreed to donate $12 million for fuel purchases.

On Monday, Hamas said it was returning to eight-hour electricity -- and was releasing all those arrested in connection with the protests.

A Gaza government spokesman argued that Jabalia protesters were attacking security forces and public buildings, but also said that Hamas was responding to demands by working to improve electricity supply.

"There is no security solution," Salama Maroof told AFP.

Che Guevara admirer Taluli felt safe enough to return home after the announcement that those arrested would be released, but for him and others, the electricity shortages are only one in a series of frustrations.

Many young people feel trapped between Hamas's strict rule and Israel's blockade of the enclave, which has been in place for about a decade and prevents them from leaving.

Egypt's border with Gaza has also remained largely closed, and unemployment is around 42 percent.

Three wars since 2008 between Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israel have left behind death and destruction, not to mention psychological scars.

Even those with longtime businesses have suffered.

"I need electricity for more than eight hours to complete my work for the customers," said 29-year-old Mohamed Abu Sharaf, whose family has had a print shop in Gaza City for 40 years.

As he spoke, the electricity cut again.

'Strong message'

The reasons for the electricity shortages are multi-layered, with the first simply a lack of capacity.

Gaza has one power plant that runs on diesel fuel and which has been previously bombed by Israel.

It also imports electricity from Israel and Egypt, but it is not nearly enough.

Ageing power lines and theft add to the problem, with Gaza losing up to 20 percent of electricity that makes its way onto the grid, Maroof said.

The recent shortages were complicated by a dispute with the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank and dominated by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party.

Fatah and Hamas remain divided despite repeated attempts at reconciliation.

The Palestinian Authority handles fuel purchases from Israel since the Israeli authorities do not deal directly with Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organisation.

The PA then requires Hamas to reimburse it for bills and taxes, but Gaza's electricity company faces cash shortages because many customers do not pay.

Maroof said the company should collect some $13 million per month, but only manages around $6 million.

He blamed it on poverty and simple reluctance to pay, while calling the PA's taxes excessive.

Many Gaza residents are well aware of the complications, but have become fed up.

Those who know the situation well say Hamas must be seen as responding to their frustrations.

"This is for them a strong message that you can't count on your stick or your gun to undermine the people and to silence the people," Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas member and former government official, told AFP.

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