GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – At night, large swaths of the Gaza Strip plunge into darkness — the result of chronic and worsening power outages. In crowded city streets, the only source of light comes from the headlights of passing cars.
The power shortages are the worst to hit Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory 10 years ago. In recent weeks, electricity has been available for just three or four hours a day. Although some relief has arrived, the power woes have turned Gaza into a cold, dark place at the height of the winter season and sparked rare public protests against the Islamic militant group.
"Our situation is bad. I swear to God it's very, very bad," said Majed Abu Nemer, a father of six who supports his family by transporting goods on a horse-drawn cart.
On a recent day, he and other residents in a poor neighborhood of the southern town of Khan Younis burned scrap wood inside their homes, unbothered by the smoke. His family clustered around the fire, on which their mother cooked soup and roasted bread.
"I can't afford to keep buying candles, or go and bring an (emergency) light," Abu Nemer said. "When the light's battery is about to die, I go to my neighbors to charge it so I can see how my children are sleeping and if they are covered."
This week, the wealthy Gulf country Qatar, one of Hamas' few allies, delivered a grant to buy more fuel for Gaza's lone power plant. The aid is expected to increase the electricity supply to as much as two eight-hour shifts every 24 hours.
But the grant does little to solve the underlying reasons for the crisis. Gaza hasn't enjoyed fulltime electricity in at least a decade because this requires 400 to 450 megawatts of power daily. Israel provides Gaza with 120 megawatts and Egypt 30.
The territory's lone power plant produces 50 megawatts, bringing the daily total in the best of times to around half the requirement. And in winter, increasing demand and the worn-out electrical grid cause repeated failures.
The diesel for the power plant comes from Israel, but the Hamas-run energy authority in Gaza pays for it. Hamas accuses the rival West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which coordinates the electricity delivery with Israel, of taxing the fuel and driving up the price.
Hamas can afford to buy enough diesel to run two turbines at the power plant. With the Qatari grant, Hamas is now buying enough to run a third turbine.
While Qatar's help has brought some relief, residents still lack power for at least eight hours a day, usually during the evenings. For many residents, doing laundry, baking bread, studying and even showering — for the many residents whose water supply depends on electric pumps — take place in the middle of the night, when power comes back on.
But keeping warm remains the greatest challenge, especially for those who live in apartments. The power alternatives, including batteries and even solar systems used by the wealthy, cannot run electrical heaters, so people resort to older, more dangerous means, like burning coals or dusting off long-abandoned kerosene heaters.
During the daytime, acrid smoke emitted from humming generators outside restaurants spills onto chunks of meat rotating on shawarma spits. Additional external wiring for battery-powered lights can be seen in shops and small businesses.
Restaurant owner Abdulsalam al-Sheikh said he's been able to keep the lights on with a generator, but the extra fuel costs are destroying his business. "It eats up your capital. It increases the costs," he said. "My money is being burned."