Israel’s policy of hindering economic development in the Gaza Strip through control of commercial border crossings into the region has come to crisis point recently. Gaza is not only suffering a closure against construction materials and fuel but in the last few months has also been a victim of a chronic cooking gas shortage. The deterioration and breakdown of cooking gas supply in Gaza is compounding an already severe shortage of energy facilitates in the form of gas, electricity and fuel. The problem has manifested itself into a situation in which piles of empty gas cylinders are currently being left at gas stations waiting to be refilled.
Israel exercises complete economic control over the border between it and the Gaza Strip. Through its control over the passage of commercial goods, Israel has a tremendous impact on life in the Gaza Strip, a small and densely populated area which relies on trade with the outside world for obtaining basic products and maintaining a productive economy.
Previously, four commercial crossings operated on the border: Karni Crossing, through which all commercial trucks exited and most trucks entered; Sufa Crossing, through which all humanitarian goods and construction materials were transported; and Nahal Oz, through which fuel and cooking gas were imported. Karni and Sufah crossings were phased out by Israel before the start of 2010. In January 2010 Israeli authorities informed the Palestinian side that the Nahal Oz border crossing, on the northeast of the Gaza Strip, would be permanently closed as a result of “security issues”. This closure had an incomprehensibly detrimental effect on the transport of cooking gas and other fuels into Gaza.
Mr Mahmoud Ahmad Shawa, Chairman of the Petroleum and Gas Owners Association of the Gaza Strip outlines the problems caused by the closure of this crossing: “before the closure of the Nahal Oz crossing the Gaza Strip did not have any issues regarding a cooking gas shortage. The import of cooking gas was not considered a part of the economic blockage programme instigated by Israel as part of the forced economic closure of the Gaza Strip. Restrictions only began to be implemented with the closure of the Nahal Oz crossing point by Israel in 2010, a closure which was part of an Israeli implemented cessation of 5 border crossings to Israel.”
Mr Shawa continues, “the Nahal Oz crossing was solely dedicated to the importation of fuel and gas and as such had infrastructure qualified enough to transport these materials. With the closure of the crossing in 2010, all movement of the fuel and gas was moved to the Karm Abu Salem crossing.” With the Israeli instigated closure of all other economic border crossings to the Gaza Strip, the Karm Abu Salem crossing now caters for the import of all commercial materials entering Gaza, namely building and construction materials, fuel, humanitarian aid and cooking gas. The infrastructure available at the Karm Abu Salem crossing is not sufficient to cater for the required cooking gas supply for the people of Gaza. There is only one pipe available to transfer all cooking gas from Israel to the Gaza Strip. This unsatisfactory infrastructure limits the capabilities and quantities of cooking gas being imported.”
Another detrimental factor which affects supply is that of Karm Abu Salem’s opening times. Mr Shawa further illustrates the problem: “The sole pipeline at Karm Abu Salem is only open from 7:30 until 15:00, five days a week. This timetable also does not take into consideration the large number of Jewish holidays on which the crossing is closed nor the fact that the border is also susceptible to intermittent closure at the whim of Israeli officials. The reasoning for these closures is often cited as “security reasons” by Israeli officials. Other times, closure of the pipeline is blatantly cited by Israel as a punitive measure against the population of Gaza .” We note at PCHR that these actions by Israeli officials clearly constitute collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip. As a result of these restrictive factors, Mr Shawa states that currently, “only 130 tonnes of cooking gas is being supplied to Gaza on a daily basis. This constitutes approximately merely 65% of the daily requirement of cooking gas needed by the population of Gaza, namely 200 tonnes. ”
Movement of people and goods also takes place between Egypt and the Gaza Strip through underground tunnels. With the initial restrictions imposed on the import of cooking gas in January 2010 by the closure of the Nahal Oz border crossing and in an attempt to bypass the illegal economic constraints, commercial trade of the product was attempted via this route. This method of transportation was not dependable or safe. Mr Shawa asserts that “the tunnels have not been able to provide a viable method of obtaining cooking gas from Egypt. Some traders attempted to transfer gas via gas cylinders through the tunnels. This method only provided 3 or 4 tonnes of gas to Gaza daily, a mere fraction of the 200 tonnes required. Also, transporting gas from Egypt was also incredibly dangerous. As a result of gas leakages many people were killed in the tunnels while transporting the cylinders. These two factors have dictated that this method is not utilised as a method of transporting gas anymore.”
The Israeli monopoly on the supply of cooking gas to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank means that they can also dictate pricing. The Palestinian Authority subsidises the current price of cooking gas but even with these subsidies “people in the Gaza Strip pay 52 shekels per gas cylinder and persons in the West Bank pay 56 shekels per cylinder. These prices are very expensive for the average citizen of Palestine. Couple the high price with the fact that the gas is such a rare commodity and not even readily available and we have reached the current crisis point.”
For families and private homes in the Gaza Strip, cooking gas is seen as a basic human need. An average family will use one gas cylinder every 20 – 24 days however due to the current cooking gas restrictions families have to wait for an average of 2 -3 months to get a gas cylinder refilled. This means that for approximately two out of every three months families are without cooking gas. The cooking gas shortage affects many sectors of society and industry in the Gaza Strip. Not only are private homes and businesses unable to function but also factories, the agricultural sector, poultry farmers, bakeries, fishermen are all directly affected. The tourist trade in Gaza, namely hotels and restaurants, also depend mainly on cooking gas to function.
Meetings have taken place between members of the Petroleum and Gas Owners Association of the Gaza Strip and the Israeli authorities in which the association has condemned the fuel and gas closure and attempted to come to an agreement on the easing of restrictions. Specifically, a solution has been forwarded to lengthen the daily opening times of the pipe by a mere two hours, an action which would see a dramatic improvement in cooking gas availability. Israel has refused to agree to even implement this simple solution. They have not provided reasons for their lack of action.
Former Prime Minister of the Government of the West Bank, Dr Salam Fayyad, has also met with delegates from the association to discuss the chronic cooking gas shortage in the Gaza Strip. The Prime Minister was informed that if another pipe was not constructed as soon as possible, the region would suffer a serious fuel crisis. As a result of the meeting, Dr Fayyad promised another supply pipe would be constructed, with the Palestinian Authority agreeing to pay all necessary construction expenses. While Israel also agreed on the erection of a second pipe, as of June 2013, they have yet to implement their plans or begin construction on the project. No reasons have been given for the lack of progress.
There are also regular discussions with associations and consulates from the US, Europe and Israel in an attempt to find a solution to the crisis however nothing has ever come of these talks. Mr Shawa explains that “they hear our problem, empathise with our situation and state that they will attempt to exert pressure on Israeli authorities to lift the closure on cooking gas but ultimately nothing is ever done.”
The enforcing of illegal cooking gas restrictions by Israel over the the population of Gaza must come to an end. Mr Shawa states that, “technically, Israel could solve the problem within 24 hours. All that needs to be done is to lengthen the daily time allowance in which gas is imported into the region. Mr Shawa cannot see an end to the restrictions and resulting crisis, “this problem is solely a political issue. As a result, I see it persisting for a long time.” The current restrictions implemented by the Israeli forces are purely to put pressure on and paralyse normal people to surrender and accept Israeli political solutions. “The issue affects peoples’ lives. The gas crisis will increase in coming days. When added with the diesel and fuel crisis the situation is very dangerous. They deny all rights to the general population of Gaza. When Israeli is imposing these restrictions, it is not only Hamas who is punished; it is also the people of Gaza.”
The Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip amounts to a form of collective punishment, which is a violation of article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. As it inflicts great suffering on the civilian population of Gaza, it also amounts to a war crime, for which the Israeli political and military leadership bear individual criminal responsibility.