By Katherine Bloomfield
The protection of civilians in conflict remains a vital concern for the international community. South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, and other war-torn states have garnered international attention due in large part to the massive attacks on their civilian populations. However, it is not only bombshells and bullets that harm civilians during war. In Gaza, a tiny but densely populated seaside strip of the Palestinian Territories, the most recent threat is taking the form of basic resource manipulation, impacting two million Palestinian civilians.
In June, President Mahmoud Abbas, leading the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank, reduced payments to the Israel Electric Company for electricity to the Gaza Strip. The majority of Gaza’s energy comes from Israeli powerlines, paid for by the Palestinian Authority. Electricity reduction is an element of Abbas’ calculated campaign to weaken the authority of Hamas in Gaza. Abbas also decreased Gazan salaries and limited travel permits earlier this year, but his newest energy policy change has had a far greater and more immediate impact on civilian life in Gaza than his past strategies. Electricity for the Palestinians living in Gaza has been reduced by 40%, leaving some two million citizens with only 2-4 hours of power a day.
This policy has put the lives of Gazan civilians at critical risk. Hospitals, primary care centers, and blood banks all across the territory are at risk of full or partial closure. Hospitals do not have enough electricity to keep their patients alive. Medical centers cannot maintain the quality of vaccines or blood supplies, which need refrigeration. Patients suffering from chronic illnesses or in need of intensive care are unable to receive treatment.
The population of Gaza is already vulnerable to many health concerns, with disproportionately high rates of cancer, cystic-fibrosis, and kidney disease. Treatments for these illnesses require consistent and predictable access to electricity. A collapse in civil services has made access to medical care even more vital. For example, inoperable sewage treatment plants and water desalination plants are causing widespread illness. Gaza has also been experiencing a severe water crisis, which has been reinforced by the electricity reductions, leaving millions essentially without water.
In sum, the energy crisis in Gaza has become a humanitarian disaster that threatens civilian lives.
In the past year, both the United Nations Security Council and the U.N.’s Secretary-General have declared access to expedient and quality healthcare an essential component of protection of civilians. Civilians must be able to receive medical care to the fullest extent required by their condition, with the least possible delay. It is chiefly the state’s responsibility to protect its civilians from harm during conflict. However, in the case of Gaza, the political complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict challenge the strategic logic behind this international expectation. In this complicated political environment, who is responsible for protecting civilians in Gaza?
Three political entities share possible responsibility for civilians in Gaza. Hamas currently governs Gaza as the strip’s main political party. After being fairly elected in 2006, Hamas has sought recognition as a credible authority rather than a terrorist organization. If Hamas wants to lead Gaza, they should be expected to provide basic services for their constituents.
Hamas faces competition from the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, who considers the Palestinian Authority to be the legitimate leader of all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, including Gaza. However, his current leadership only protects civilians in the West Bank. Abbas must commit to the protection of the civilians in Gaza if he wants to re-assert his power in the strip.
The third party to the Gaza energy crisis is Israel. The international community still recognizes Israel as occupying the territory of the Gaza Strip. International law obliges occupying powers to protect the civilians of the occupied state. Israel does not identify as an occupying power. Even so, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Israel has a responsibility to provide Gaza with a humanitarian level of energy. The Palestinian Authority may have reduced payments, but the electricity supply still comes from Israeli power lines. If civilians in Gaza are at risk, Israel has the ability and obligation to protect them.
The enduring political feud between Hamas, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority has put Gaza in danger for too long. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an intractable fight for decades, and the energy crisis is only another phase of the violence. The three political powers may not come together in the near future, but international organizations can play a role in alleviating the crisis. The World Bank is currently partnering with the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company to launch a solar panel pilot program in the territory, installing rooftop solar systems on health facilities and hospitals, with the intention to expand the program to households as well. Their goal is to create enough access to sustainable energy that civilians will remain connected despite political uncertainty and inconsistent State protection.
Other international organizations and non-state actors, including the private sector, can play a similar role in ameliorating the threat by prioritizing assistance to relieve civilians from the impacts of the current energy crisis in Gaza. If Gazan civilians cannot depend on government support during conflict, then the international community must come together to protect them from violence.
Katherine Bloomfield is an intern with the Stimson Center.