Maher Abukhater
The Los Angeles Times
February 10, 2010 - 1:00am,0...

The Gaza Strip's beleaguered residents face worsening power outages, even as winter temperatures drop, because of a financial dispute between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and Gaza's electricity distributor.

The authority says it pays about $30 million a month to provide electricity to Gaza's 1.5 million people. But officials say the Gaza Electricity Distribution Co., which collects payments from Gaza customers, is sending back only about one-tenth of that amount from bill collections.

"Gedco collects bills from its customers in Gaza and no one knows where this money goes," Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said Monday. "We want Gedco to start taking responsibility and contribute to the fuel bill from the money it collects from its customers."

In an effort to pressure Gedco, the authority recently began reducing the money it releases to buy fuel for the Gaza Power Plant, a shareholding company partially owned by U.S. firm Morganti.

The plant generates about 25% of the power for the coastal strip. The rest of Gaza's power is purchased from Israel and Egypt, officials said.

Until December, the European Union paid $15 million a month to help buy fuel for the plant. But now it provides the money to the authority, giving Palestinian leaders more leverage.

Gedco officials say they are passing along the money they collect from their customers, but that only one-fifth of its customers in the impoverished enclave regularly pay their bills.

"There are many people who have no income whatsoever and others who think that paying the electric bill is not a priority when it comes to buying food for their children or paying for their school," Gedco spokesman Jamal Dardasawi said Tuesday.

Without fuel, Gaza power plant officials have dramatically cut production and warned that the facility may soon shut down. Residents recently have faced eight-hour blackouts, in an area where nighttime temperatures can dip into the 40s during February.

"This is the 21st century and we feel as if we are living in primitive times," said Mohammed abu Hemaid, 26, of Gaza City.

Dr. Hussein Ashour, general director of Shefaa Hospital, said his facility has been relying on seven backup generators. "But if the generators break down, it could affect the lives of our patients," he said.

The standoff is complicated by tensions between the rival Palestinian factions: Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority and West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority says it is only trying to reduce corruption and ensure proper use of its funds. Some in Gaza have suggested that Fatah is using the crisis to attempt to isolate Hamas.

Israel, which has sealed Gaza's borders and restricts deliveries of fuel and other supplies, is also blamed for exacerbating the power shortage.

Gedco officials said a plan to install prepaid electricity meters to improve customer collection was abandoned because the meters were not permitted to pass through Israeli checkpoints.

Abukhater is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem and special correspondent Hamada Abu Qamar in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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