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 Day 19

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Poor, Frustated and Powerless

Gaza in the Dark

by ROBERT BRYCE

Israel is not content with its occupation and total military domination of Palestine. No, Israel has proven that it wants to assure the Palestinians continue to live in the most dire poverty, a poverty created by a near-total lack of affordable energy. That truth was made clear by the Israeli military’s recent bombing of the Gaza City power plant, the only electric power station inside Palestinian territory.

By using warplanes to launch nine missiles at the power plant ­ a facility with no military value — the Israelis have assured that the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have no electric generating capacity of their own. That’s not to say the power plant was huge. It wasn’t. The plant had a rated capacity of just 140 megawatts, far less than what the residents of Gaza need to be self-sufficient. But the plant wasn’t even operating at capacity. In fact, it had been producing just 70 megawatts of power due to poor management by the Palestinian authorities, who hadn’t built enough power lines to take all of the power the plant can generate.

By bombing the plant, the Israelis cut power to 65 percent of the Gaza Strip, a region that is one of the most impoverished in the Middle East. By destroying the plant, the Israelis also decimated one of Palestine’s most valuable companies, the Palestine Electric Company, whose shares are traded on the Palestine Stock Exchange. Further, the Israelis have destroyed any chance for industry in Gaza to grow.

It is axiomatic among the world’s economies: as electricity consumption increase, so does wealth. Gazans are impoverished, in large part, because they don’t have enough electricity. Residents in Gaza consume just 654 kilowatt hours of electricity per year ­ or about one-tenth of what Israelis consume. The average Israeli consumes about 6,183 kilowatt hours of power per year, a rate that places Israel 27th among the world’s countries in terms of power use. By comparison the residents of Gaza rank number 136 among the world’s countries in per capita power use, a status that places them behind residents of Peru. (For comparison, the U.S. per capita electric consumption is about 12,406 kilowatt hours per year.)

Further, each resident of Israel has some 1,600 watts of installed generating capacity. Before the bombing of the power plant, the Palestinians had just 35 watts of electric generating capacity per capita. Now, they have zero.

By destroying the power plant, the Israelis also destroyed any chance that Gaza will have sufficient water supplies any time soon. One of the original objectives of the $100 million power plant project, which was launched in the late 1990’s, thanks to encouragement from the Clinton Administration, was to connect it to a desalination plant. That desalination plant never got off the ground. Nor was the power plant able to begin operation after it was completed. The Al-Aqsa Intifada kept the plant shuttered for about two years after it was completed. The plant finally started operations in March of 2004, due mainly to the determination and financial commitment of the Athens-based construction giant CCC, which was founded several decades ago by Said Khoury, who was born in Safad, in northern Palestine.

When it comes to Gaza’s water supply, the only option is large-scale desalination. And that process requires huge amounts of energy. As Ishai Menuchin, a researcher for Oxfam who works in Jerusalem told me, when it comes to Palestine and Israel, "the issues of water and energy go hand-in-hand."

In addition to providing fresh water, the Gaza power plant was supposed to be fired with natural gas ­ gas that was to come from Gaza Marine-1, a major gas field located a few miles off the Gaza coast that was discovered by BG in 1999. But the Israelis have prevented the Palestinians from building a pipeline that would have allowed them to use their own gas. Instead, the Gaza plant has had to use fuel oil imported from ­ where else? ­ Israel. The gas in the Gaza field remains untapped, making it one of the biggest stranded gas fields in the Middle East.

While Gaza remains stuck, the Israelis have begun operating one of the world’s largest desalination plants in Ashkelon, located on the Israelis coast just a few miles north of Gaza. The plant has a capacity of 100 million cubic meters (26.4 billion gallons) per year. The project, a joint venture between French water giant Vivendi and Israeli interests, includes a gas-fired power plant with 80 megawatts of capacity. The plant uses gas from an offshore field located in Israeli waters.

Last year, during a visit to Ramallah, Omar Kitanneh, the deputy minister of energy and natural resources for the Palestinian National Authority, told me that "Like any country, we want to have energy independence." But the Palestinians will never have energy independence ­ nor will they have their own electric power plants — without the approval of the Israelis. And by bombing the Gaza power plant, the Israelis have made it clear that they intend to keep the Palestinians in the dark and in grinding poverty for as long as they please.

ROBERT BRYCE lives in Austin, Texas and managing editor of Energy Tribune. He is the author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate. He can be reached at: robert@robertbryce.com