GAZA – Gaza’s main power plant began shutting down on Sunday due to a fuel shortage caused by Israel’s closure of the Hamas-controlled territory’s borders, a move taken in response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
The impact could be seen in many of Gaza’s buildings, where lights were out and elevators stopped working.
Stores in the impoverished territory, home to 1.5 million people, were running out of goods because of a surge in demand and lack of supply. Gas stations have been shuttered because of Israeli cuts in petrol and diesel delivery.
“People are shopping feverishly, fearing products will vanish from the shelves soon,” said Jihad Abu Anwar, a grocery store owner. Turning to a customer, he said: “No candles”.
Kanaan Abeid, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Energy Authority in the Gaza Strip, said the power plant turned off one of its two turbines and the second would stop in the evening.
“There is no fuel coming in and we have no reserves,” Abeid said. He estimated as many as one million Gaza residents would be affected by the full shutdown.
Palestinian militants have been firing rockets daily into Israel from the Gaza Strip, which Hamas Islamists seized in June after routing President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction.
Israel has responded to the rockets with stepped up air strikes and ground incursions that have killed 39 Gazans, 18 of them Hamas militants, in the last week.
On Friday, Israel’s Defense Ministry tightened its Gaza border closure, shutting all crossings to even U.N. humanitarian supplies. Officials said only “humanitarian cases” that received Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s approval would go through.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel has reduced the flow of petrol used in cars, as well as diesel, but not fuel oil and cooking gas.
“The ball is in their court,” said Mekel. “If they stop the rockets today, everything would go back to normal.”
He suggested the power plant’s shutdown was unnecessary. “They have an interest in exaggerating,” he said.
The Hamas-appointed Health Minister, Basim Naeem, said an already crumbling health system was in danger of collapsing and patients’ lives were increasingly at risk due to the fuel cuts.
“Such methods have failed in the past to weaken the determination and steadfastness of our people,” Hamas said in a statement.
Officials with the European Union, which funds fuel shipments to the Gaza plant, confirmed one of the turbines had been shut down and that it was operating at about half-capacity.
“After two months of reductions, they’re very low on fuel. It’s only a question of hours,” said a senior EU official involved in the fuel program.
The EU official said the last EU-funded fuel shipment was made on Thursday and no fuel was allowed in on Sunday.
According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, Gazans ordinarily consume 200 megawatts of electricity, of which 65 are produced by the local power plant. The rest comes from Israel and Egypt.
Critics say the fuel reductions amount to illegal “collective punishment” against largely aid-dependent Gaza.
“It is going to have a significant impact on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza,” said Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose aid shipments have been turned back.