Hand on the Switch January 2017: Who’s responsible for Gaza’s infrastructure crisis?

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On Friday, May 6, 2016, a fire broke out in the alHindi home in a-Shati Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip burning it to the ground. Three of the family’s children, Yusra, Rahaf and Nasser, died in the blaze caused by candles that had been burning in the children’s room.1 Candles are often used for lighting in Gaza due to an ever-present and severe electricity shortage. The alHindi family’s tragedy was a sad statistical addition to a slew of deaths that have taken place in Gaza under similar circumstances over the past several years. Even where the electricity shortage does not end in injuries or fatalities, it wreaks havoc to one degree or another on the lives of all of Gaza’s nearly two million residents.

The dire state of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure is often raised by Israel and within the international community as a source of concern. The discourse on Gaza’s infrastructure problems and possible solutions for them tends to focus on the gap between the actual and the desired state of affairs, and the immense challenge involved in bridging it, whether technical or financial. There have been too few discussions about accountability for the current situation, let alone much clarity about the duties of those responsible for maintaining or improving Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, and thus providing for the critical needs of its population.

Previous Gisha reports have summarized our analysis of the legal status of Gaza, and looked at the ways in which Israel continues to control the lives of Gaza residents or yield significant influence over them.2 In this report, we review the impact various actors have had, actively or through omission, on the functioning of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure – particularly energy, water, sewage and communications infrastructure. Though we take into consideration the role played by each of the relevant actors – Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the de facto Hamas government in Gaza and the international community, given our position as an Israeli human rights organization, we seek to engage mainly our own government, that is, the Israeli government. By highlighting the elements of control Israel maintains over daily life in Gaza, and clarifying its tremendous influence, our goal is to assert that along with control comes responsibility to uphold human rights and ensure Gaza residents can lead normal lives.

Throughout the period that Israel exercised direct control over the Gaza Strip, with a military and civilian presence inside the territory (1967-2005), it refrained from investing the resources required for developing independent civilian infrastructure. In the years since the 2005 disengagement, when civilian and military presence were removed from inside the territory, Israel's severe restrictions on the entry of construction materials, spare parts, fuel, travel for experts and technicians to and from the Strip, together with direct damage caused to infrastructure during military operations and significant, deliberate harm to the local economy, have all hampered the ability of local authorities in Gaza to develop infrastructure that can meet the needs of the population. These needs far surpass what the existing infrastructure can supply and also exceed the funding available to the authorities to make critical changes and improvements. International organizations have stepped in to try and bridge the gap in capacity and funding, but despite significant efforts and achievements, limited resources and difficulties coordinating the activities of various agencies working on the ground have meant that the gap between the actual and the desired state of affairs continues to grow.

Recognizing the significant degree of control Israel maintains over various aspects of civilian infrastructure in Gaza does not necessarily translate into a demand for it to enter Gaza and repair or build necessary infrastructure. Israel has a responsibility to protect the rights of Gaza residents in the spheres over which it maintains control and to allow Gaza residents to lead normal lives. Israel must ensure that its actions do not prevent other actors, be they Palestinian or international, from fulfilling their duties or compensating for others’ duties. Therefore, the demand from Israel is, at the very least, to refrain from harming the economy and from blocking the efforts made by Gaza residents and international agencies to develop the economy, and in a more proactive way to promote the functioning of the economy and assist in maintenance and improvements to infrastructure.

The Palestinian Authority, the de facto Hamas government and the international community must ensure that their actions, in the spheres in which they have influence, advance the maintenance, repair and development of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. The ability to address Gaza’s many challenges depends on coordinated efforts by all relevant actors, including the feuding political factions with authority in the West Bank and in Gaza, whose ongoing split bears a heavy toll on the population.

The information presented in this report is based on research conducted by Gisha’s research department, conversations and correspondence with Israeli, Palestinian and international officials and relies also on various reports and publications. Efforts were made to verify and cross-check all outside information on which this document relies. Given the scope and depth of the issues covered, and the limits of our technical expertise, our research focused on the main issues affecting civilian infrastructure in the spheres of energy, water and communications, and on the distribution of responsibility among the different actors. More in-depth analysis of the humanitarian aspects of the shortage, or the individual issues mentioned below can be found in the documents cited in the report.