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April 27, 2017 3:55 pm

Human Rights Group: Israel Bears ‘Ultimate Responsibility’ for Gaza Electricity Supply as Crisis Looms

avatar by Ben Cohen

A view of Gaza City. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Israel should refuse the Palestinian Authority’s request to cut off electricity supplies to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on the grounds that it is the “ultimate occupying power” in the coastal enclave, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) official told The Algemeiner on Thursday.

Speaking from Tel Aviv, Omar Shakir — the Israel and Palestine Director for HRW — called on the Israeli government and the PA to “ensure that electricity supplies to Gaza are maintained.”

Shakir was speaking after the PA informed Israel it would no longer pay for the electricity which the Jewish state provides to Gaza, a move which could plunge the territory’s two million Palestinian residents into a long-term blackout.

The Fatah-controlled PA’s move — which reverses its ten-year policy of paying for Gaza’s electricity despite having been violently ousted from the Strip by Hamas in 2007 — comes at a time of escalating PA-Hamas tensions that may yet mushroom into a major headache for Israel.

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“Palestinians in Gaza are already facing electricity shortages, sometimes only three or four hours a day,” Shakir said. “Their humanitarian needs should not be used as a political football.”

Shakir said that as the PA and Hamas have “some level of involvement in the provision of  services,” HRW would “push them to ensure that the humanitarian needs in Gaza are met.” But ultimate responsibility for maintaining electricity supply lay with the Israelis, he stated, “because they are legally the occupying power. Israel controls the borders, the airspace, the waters of Gaza, so Israel has an obligation that goes beyond merely responding to a request from Palestinian authorities.”

Gerald Steinberg — a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan — told The Algemeiner there was “widespread agreement among international law experts that Israel’s responsibility ended with the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.” Steinberg added that any assertion of responsibility based on the control of Gaza’s borders would also “have to relate to Egypt, which has a long border with Gaza, as well.”

Keeping Gaza’s electricity supply stable “is the responsibility of the controlling group, which is Hamas, a terrorist organization,” Steinberg said. “The attempt to transfer the blame to Israel has no basis in international law.”

The spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jerusalem told The Algemeiner his organization “urges all relevant authorities and concerned entities (in Ramallah, Gaza but also others) to find an immediate solution.”

Jesus Serrano Redondo said the ICRC was “increasingly concerned about the current electricity crisis. Electricity in Gaza is currently only available from 4 to 6 hours per day across the strip.”

“In the face of the reduced electricity provision, the entire health care system is at risk,” he continued.

The ICRC has previously provided Gazan authorities with solar panel units and other equipment to help ensure an uninterrupted power supply to hospitals and other public services, he added.

Over the last month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has stepped up his bid to bring Gaza under his control once again. On April 5, he announced a surprise 30-percent cut in the salaries of PA civil servants in Gaza, resulting in angry protests. Earlier this week, the secretary-general of the PA, Tayeb Abdul Rahim, demanded that Hamas hand back control of Gaza as a precondition for reconciliation with rival Fatah.

“Hamas was informed about this and we are waiting for its response within two days,” Abdul Rahim said. That deadline expired on Thursday, and the PA informed Israel it would no longer finance Gaza’s electricity supply.

Jonathan Schanzer — an expert on Palestinian politics at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, DC — pointed out that the PA “has been keeping Hamas afloat since the split in 2007, even after Hamas took over Gaza by force and killed or maimed hundreds of PA fighters.”

Schanzer did not think that the current dispute would lead to violent conflict. “There is zero chance that the PA will take back Gaza by force,” he said. “This is a political battle, and we are seeing a heightening of that battle.”

With regard to the looming potential humanitarian crisis, Schanzer said that “part of the problem is that the Hamas government continues to siphon off materials and humanitarian aid that’s coming in. The Israelis are doing everything they can to ensure that proper channels are set up, working with Turkey and Qatar to make sure there is no collapse.”

Schanzer added that he did not see Hamas relinquishing control of Gaza to the PA in the foreseeable future. “It’s a republic of fear and an Islamic dictatorship with no elections in sight,” he said. “They see their control as legitimate because they won the elections in 2006, eleven years ago. President Abbas is in the twelfth year of a four-year term. Both factions have lost their legitimacy.”

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