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Episode 226 | Gaza’s water and energy

In this episode, Richard Pater speaks to Dr Elai Rettig about the Gaza Strip’s water and energy supply. Rettig explains how much of Strip’s energy supply Israel was responsible for providing prior to October 7th, the importance of fuel to the water supply, and Hamas’s neglect of the Strip’s infrastructure and its own people’s welfare. Rettig is Assistant Professor at Bar Ilan University and the head of the energy division at the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

 

BICOM Podcast –  TRANSCRIPT

Richard Pater (RP): Last time we spoke, it was full of optimism. Israel had just granted permission for the Palestinians to begin to explore offshore natural gas and we focused on regional connectivity, with the idea of a regional electricity grid and supporting Israeli green energy solutions that would be a benefit for the whole region. Perhaps we’ll come back to that later on in the conversation. But to start with, you can help us make some order and to clarify and explain what existed up until the 6th of October in terms of the supply of electricity, water and fuel into Gaza. 

Elai Rettig (ER): The situation in Gaza before October 7th was that 50 percent of Gaza’s electricity came directly from Israel, through 10 electricity grid lines. 50 percent – that’s about 120 megawatts, which is not a lot for 2.2 million people, but that’s 50 percent of Gaza’s electricity. So, the day after the war started, when Israel said that it’s cutting off electricity to Gaza, that was 50 percent. The rest of the 50 percent is locally produced within Gaza. 25 percent is from one power station that runs on diesel fuel. It needs around 17,000 litres of diesel per hour to generate around 65 megawatts, and the rest of the electricity comes from widespread private initiatives.  

Basically, Gaza’s population that can afford it have either built or bought a small-scale diesel generator and put it in their backyard or in their basements. Hospitals have diesel powered generators in their basements. Water desalination plants, factories, bakeries – they all have these small-scale diesel generators. And one of the largest penetrations of off grid solar panels in the world. So, during the day, 25 percent of Gaza’s electricity is generated from solar panels, and when the sun sets, then the diesel power generators come into play. And that means that when Israel cuts off electricity to Gaza, then, that’s just 50 percent. The rest is locally produced.  

But it depends mainly on the diesel supply, because solar panels are nice, but they only work for around a third of the day. The rest needs diesel. And so, when Israel also – three days into the war – decided that it’s also cutting off diesel supply into Gaza, then it was just a matter of time until electricity runs out completely, other than during the day when the solar panels are off. There are also some batteries, but those batteries work for another hour or two, not much more than that. 

RP: And can you tell us about the water supply as well, and how much of that is reliant on Israel? 

ER: So that’s where things get complicated because Gaza is not reliant on Israel for water, but it is reliant on Israel for electricity and diesel to get that water flowing. Because on a regular day, only 10 percent of Gaza’s water comes from Israel, 90 percent is locally produced. Either from groundwater, aquifers or water desalination plants. The problem, however, in Gaza – which makes everything so complicated – is that the groundwater in Gaza is not fit to drink. It is very salty, because a lot of sea water has gone into it, and it is contaminated with sewage. That has to do with how the Gazans are producing water. There’s a lot of overproduction. Pretty much any person in Gaza that can afford it and has the means, has drilled his own well in the backyard to get water outside, because they don’t trust Hamas infrastructure. Hamas infrastructure is pretty much non-existent and so everybody just drills wells and they’re not properly drilled. They’re not properly sealed and so seawater gets into them. When there’s rain, then sewage starts flowing into it and the groundwater is contaminated. It’s not fit for human consumption, which means that the groundwater needs to go through water treatment facilities. So, Gaza’s water is either underground water that goes through water treatment facilities or its seawater that goes through big desalination plants.  

The problem with both these solutions is that they are very energy intensive. They need electricity from the grid in order to get the water flowing. This is where things get complicated because Israel gives 50 percent of Gaza’s electricity. The rest is from the diesel power plant and the rest is from the small-scale diesel generators and the and the solar panels. But that’s not enough to keep the water desalination plants working for 24 hours in the water treatment facilities. And that complicates the whole map, because there’s a question of: is Israel allowed to cut off electricity to the Gaza population during war time? What does the international humanitarian law say about it?  

Now, according to international humanitarian law, when you are either an occupying force or during war time, you are allowed to cut off electricity and cut off fuel supply as a war time measure, as a temporary tactical wartime measure, to blind your enemy, to create pressure on your enemy while you’re attacking. You are not required to supply that. What you are required to supply according to law is either the provision, or to allow the provision by others of water, food and medicine. You cannot dry out the population from water. Without electricity and fuel, Gaza’s population doesn’t have water, and that means, according to international law, Israel has to give the Gazan population some kind of means to generate that water. Either electricity or the diesel itself so it can generate its own electricity.  

That is why, before October 7th, Israel was supplying the electricity for free. So, 50 percent of Gaza’s electricity is coming from Israel and Gaza didn’t pay for it. Hamas doesn’t pay the Israeli government. On paper, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank was supposed to be paying for the electricity that Israel gave Gaza. But they are unwilling to because the Palestinian Authority is not willing to give money to Hamas, so the result was just debt that was accumulated and after every few years Israel just forgave the debt. The current debt is 2 billion shekels, which is around half a billion U.S. dollars, and Israel just kept supplying it because it didn’t have the option of just cutting it out because that would cause Gaza’s population to run out of water.  

And so, Israel is stuck in a place where, tactically, it does make sense to cut off electricity and diesel to an area where you are currently attacking. The main issue with diesel is that it’s dual use. Unlike water, food, or medicine, diesel can be used as a wartime measure as a weapon, either to manufacture rockets or to power the underground tunnels or the underground city, I should say, of Hamas which uses also small-scale diesel generators to generate oxygen and to ventilate the tunnels. And so the tactical idea for the IDF was “let’s dry out Hamas from diesel. If Hamas doesn’t get any diesel and any electricity from outside, it will eventually have to come out of the tunnels because it will run out of air.”  

Having said that, the tactical idea has a huge price to it, because if you’re drying out Hamas, you’re also drying out the entire population from diesel, which means that the hospitals aren’t getting electricity, and the water desalination plants aren’t getting electricity. And even if the water desalination plants are generating water, that water needs to get to the population somehow. There are no pipelines because they are either hit during the air strikes or Hamas itself dug out that those water pipelines in order to make rockets out of them. Which means that in order to get the water to the population, you need trucks. And the trucks also run on diesel. So, if you’re not supplying diesel to the Gaza Strip, you’re creating a huge humanitarian issue.  

Now that is an acceptable price, if this is a very short-term tactic. If you say within a month, Hamas will dry out of diesel and it will have to come out of the tunnels, then that’s a price worth paying, that the Gaza population can survive a month without the electricity if we bring it water from outside. The issue is we do not know how much diesel Hamas has in storage. The assumptions are that likely they have prepared for the October 7th attacks a long time in advance and that they have stored at least one million litres of diesel underground, which is presumably supposed to last for at least four, five, or maybe six months in advance. Cutting off the Gaza’s population from diesel electricity for six months? That’s not sustainable. The cost that you’re creating, both for humanitarian purposes but also for diplomatic issues. The diplomatic pressure that Israel is under is proving to completely outweigh the tactical benefits of trying to choke out Hamas. And that’s the dilemma that Israel faces. Do we continue to cut off electricity and diesel from the from Gaza in order to choke out Hamas, but the price is that the Gaza population is not getting enough water? And so, you need to find some kind of balance to get the tactical advantage, but also to prevent the humanitarian disaster that it might create in the long run. 

RP: In terms of the water supply, 10 percent of which comes from Israel: we understand there’s one pipeline to the north and one pipeline to the south. I think the Israeli Government announced that the northern one was being cut off when they wanted to move the population at the beginning of the conflict, to incentivise them to go south. But the southern pipeline was still running. A, is that correct? And B, can the can the capacity of that be expanded to help alleviate the specific water issue? Or is it just not enough? 

ER: It’s true that the pipeline that goes south is still operational, but as you said, there’s a limit to the capacity that the water can transfer. And even if you get the water into Gaza, it has nowhere to flow into. This is a current active war zone and to rely on permanent infrastructure is not something that is sustainable in a war zone because the pipelines are not there inside of Gaza. They are damaged. There’s no one to send to repair them. So, when it comes to a war zone, to populations continuously moving for operational needs. to one million people from the north going down and joining the million people from the south, you have to be very dynamic, and you cannot rely on permanent water pipelines or anything of that sort because you need to move the food, medicine and water along with the population. And so, in order to get water into Gaza, it is not enough to just have an active pipeline or an active desalination plant. You also need a lot of trucks with a lot of diesel in order to move everything along and you need a basic road etc., and if a road gets damaged then you need to fix it.  

So why am I saying all of this? Because you have a situation where you have two narratives, and they seem as if they’re contradictory. You have the narrative of the international community, UN, and UNRWA, that’s saying Gaza does not have diesel. Gaza does not have enough water. Gaza does not have enough medicine and food. And you have the Israeli narrative that’s saying yes, they do; they have a lot of diesel, they have a lot of food, they have a lot of water. And the truth is somewhere in the middle, that both of the sides are right. It’s not that there’s not enough food or medicine or water coming into Gaza, it’s that it’s very hard to get it to the actual population because of the lack of infrastructure. Because of all of the damage that was sustained and because people are moving around. And of course because Hamas is hijacking some of those resources. So, the main issue is logistical more than anything else. It’s not that Israel is preventing from things going in. It’s that once they are in, it’s very hard to properly disseminate them among 2 million people that are continuously moving.  

It’s very hard to keep track of who got the rations of food and who did not, who stored them, who stole them, who are actually Hamas agents that are wearing civilian clothes and just took a truck and escaped with it. It’s very hard to keep track of it and that’s where things get much more complicated. And when you are at the IDF and you say, okay I need to allow some diesel to come into the Gaza Strip because otherwise they don’t have electricity for the water desalination plants or for the hospitals, then I need to allow some diesel to come in. But I also need to make sure that Hamas is not hijacking those trucks.  

So, the compromise was that the IDF has been allowing two diesel trucks to enter Gaza every single day over the past two months. Two diesel trucks is around 60,000 litres of diesel. And that is enough to generate enough water in the desalination plants and in the major water treatment facilities in the south. Again, when I say ‘enough’ I mean they can generate enough water for two million people. Getting that water to the actual two million people that are scattered and moving, that’s another thing. But that’s enough diesel. And the idea is that if you just allow two trucks a day, then you can monitor what’s going on with them. You can see exactly which hospitals they’re supplying to and which water desalination plants they’re supplying to. And you also have the intel that tells you, with UNRWA and the Red Cross, that this specific hospital has a diesel generator, and it needs this amount of litres of diesel to work for every single day.  

So right now, we need diesel for a week. That’s, let’s say, 25,000 litres of diesel. So, the IDF makes sure that the truck gets to the hospital and gives it 25,000 litres of diesel. If after three days the hospital says we’ve run out of diesel, then that means that Hamas came later and took the diesel out of the generator. If after a week it says we ran out of electricity, then the IDF knows, yes, all of the diesel that we gave was used for the purpose that it says, and we can bring it another truck. Currently, that’s the only way of doing it, because again, you’re dealing with an organisation that has embedded itself within the population and is constantly hijacking the resources that is being given. So, you need to somehow kind of balance between those necessities. 

RP: Back on the electricity, you mentioned that the 50 percent is supplied from Israel. What’s the current status of that supply? Just like in previous rounds of conflict, the rockets fired out of Gaza have often hit those electricity pylons and damaged their own supply of the electricity. I’m presuming it’s similar here, so what’s the status now? Have they been repaired? Has that been restored or is that also kind of a political question for the Israeli side? 

ER: So, on the first day of the war, the electricity was cut from Gaza not because Israel cut the electricity from Gaza, but because Hamas rockets hit the electricity grid. It hit all the power lines, which happens all the time. Every time that Hamas fires rockets into Israel, it hits the power grid because the power grid goes through the Israeli communities around Gaza Strip before they get into Gaza. So, when Hamas tries to bomb the Israeli communities around Gaza, it inevitably hits some of the power grids and power lines. What happens then is that the Israeli electricity company comes in and, at its own expense, fixes the power lines, and Gaza gets its electricity back, which is an absurd situation. But again, it’s because of international humanitarian law where they need the electricity for the water and Hamas knows that it knows it can sabotage the electricity grid and Israel will come and fix it for free. The issue with that is the longer this happens, the more resilient the population becomes. Because the population of Gaza has learned not to rely on the on the National Grid, the main electricity grid in Gaza. Even on a good day before the war started, the average person in Gaza would receive around four to eight hours a day of continuous electricity. Eight hours on a really good day, but usually four hours on average every single day from the main electricity grid. Because of all of these power cuts and the dilapidated infrastructure that has never been fixed by Hamas. Israel fixes the grid around Gaza, but whenever a Hamas fires rockets – a third of those rockets hit within Gaza and they fall short of their target – they ruin the electricity grid inside of Gaza and Hamas doesn’t fix that.  

Every time foreign aid comes in, either by the EU, US or UNVP, it is provided to Hamas in order to fix the power lines, but Hamas takes the money and does something else with it. It doesn’t bother fixing the power grid unless the UN does it or some kind of foreign aid workers come and fix the grid for them. Hamas just doesn’t operate as a sovereign. It doesn’t care about the infrastructure so long as it has its own small scale diesel generators. And so, the reality of all of that is that the average person in Gaza has learned not to rely on the on the grid, so they bought their own solutions.  

Whoever could afford it bought their own small scale diesel generators and put it in their backyard, or they bought solar panels. And it’s all private initiatives or initiatives paid by the UNVP, or the EU or the US, trying to circumvent Hamas. Hamas doesn’t care if someone in Gaza builds a solar panel on their house. They just come, they take a tax, and they leave and that’s it. So, what happens is that you have a lot of these ‘entrepreneurs’. You have people in Gaza that buy three or four diesel generators, put it in their backyard and then sell electricity to their neighbours. Same thing with the solar panels. Same thing with the wells – someone drilling the wells and he’s selling the water to his neighbours. And all of that means that it’s very hard to kind of understand what the current situation is in Gaza, because a lot of it is off grid and a lot of it is off the books because the Gaza population itself does it independently from Hamas. It doesn’t count on Hamas for anything.  

In the past seventeen years, Hamas didn’t build a single major infrastructure project in Gaza. Any water desalination plant, any water treatment facility, any major road, any major electricity grid that you’re seeing in Gaza that has been built in the past seventeen years was built by foreign aid workers with foreign aid money. Mostly Western money, not Gulf state money or Qatari money. Qatari money goes in the form of hard currency to Hamas members, and then it just disappears. Whereas US, UN and EU money doesn’t come as money, it comes as projects, as infrastructure. So, they come, and they build the infrastructure but Hamas itself doesn’t care, it just taxes it and doesn’t maintain it. And so even when the war started and Israel cut off electricity and diesel, you still saw hospitals running for months and you still saw entire areas south of Gaza still having electricity and still running the bakeries etc., because they are all off grid. They all stored diesel for a while. That’s where things get complicated because at the end of the day, Israel needs to differentiate in some way between Hamas and the population. The population lives independently from Hamas. Hamas has stored its own diesel. Hamas generates electricity for itself, and the population generates electricity for itself, and you need to find a way to get the supplies to the population while still denying it from Hamas to kind of meet your tactical operational needs, which is to dry out the tunnels. 

RP: Can I take you back to just another thing you mentioned earlier about the fact that the 50 percent of electricity supply basically comes at the cost of the Israeli electricity company or does that get passed on also to the Israeli taxpayers? Does the Israeli electricity company take the hit on that or the government? This has been the situation that you said for close to seventeen years. What’s the rationale of the Israeli Government to perpetuate that situation? 

ER: It’s a good question. Yes, the Israeli electricity company takes the hit. The Israeli electricity company (IRC) is a national company. It provides electricity for free to 2.2 million people in Gaza, and it provides, almost for free, to another 3 million people in the West Bank. In the West Bank, they do pay, but also very late. This is not just an Israeli problem. The Palestinian Authority also has a very hard time billing its own Palestinian population because there’s a lot of electricity theft going on from neighbours, etc. And it hurts. The IRC is under heavy debt because it’s expected to provide electricity for free for political reasons, and to fix these things. Why has the Israeli Government –  all of the Israeli governments, not just this one,  ‘the most right-wing Israeli government in its history’ – why is it allowing it?  

First, because of the complicated political issue and humanitarian issue of having to supply electricity to the population even though they have their own sovereign and even though there is a government there with Hamas. But the government doesn’t care about its population. At least, it doesn’t build any infrastructure for them and it’s not finding any solution for them. So, if you cut off the electricity, then you are to blame, and the international community blames Israel and not Hamas for what’s going on in Gaza. The second is that Israel has been trying to fix it. In fact, if it wasn’t for the current attack that Hamas initiated on October 7th, there were a bunch of really positive large scale infrastructure projects which were already approved and in the pipelines that were about to happen in Gaza. And the reason Israel still did that despite the issue with Gaza is that at the end of the day, the Israeli Government believed – the Netanyahu government and the ones before that – that Hamas wants to govern, that Hamas cares about its population. And the belief was that yes, it has its rhetoric and its very antisemitic charter etc., but it’s all rhetoric. At the end of the day, it has 2.2 million people to take care of, and if we improve the economy in Gaza, if we build more infrastructure in Gaza, if we build a port or an airport in Gaza, then eventually that will calm down the issue and Hamas will basically turn into what the PLO has turned into. The PLO was also considered a terrorist organisation and now it’s considered a moderate government in the West Bank and the assumption was that Hamas will also transform into a moderate government if we give it what it wants.  

And so, I’ve heard a lot of talk about how what Hamas did on October 7th was because of economic hardship. That doesn’t make sense because during this year, if it wouldn’t have attacked, the situation in Gaza would have been immensely better next year because there were at least four major projects that were about to start next year with negotiations, with the approval of Hamas. One of them was to develop the Gaza marine field, which is what we talked about in the last podcast where I was so optimistic.  

There’s a there’s a tiny gas field offshore of Gaza. It’s very small, it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense to develop it. But it makes a lot of political sense to develop it. If the gas goes to Gaza to help it become more independent from Israel, because Israel doesn’t want to keep giving free electricity to the Gaza Strip. So, if it can get someone to come and develop the field and get gas to Gaza, then Gaza can become more independent. The plan was approved in June 2023. It was approved with Egypt. The idea was that Egypt will develop the Gaza marine offshore gas field. It will buy some of the gas to fund the project and the rest of the gas will go to Gaza to generate its own electricity. For that you also need a gas power plant, which Gaza currently doesn’t have. It only has one small diesel generator that can do 65 megawatts. So, another project was called the ‘Gas for Gaza’ project. Under that project, which was already approved by the Quartet, the US and the UK, together with Israel, were to build a very large gas power plant inside of Gaza that can generate 650 megawatts – ten times what the current generator can do, which is more than the entire demand of the Gazan population currently and which would really have upgraded the infrastructure. That was already approved, and the idea was that the gas power plant would be supplied by the Gaza marine and Gaza would become more independent.  

Another project was to connect Gaza with the West Bank with infrastructure so that they can supply one another; Gaza can supply desalinated water to the West Bank and the West Bank can generate electricity and supply to Gaza. And the fourth project was to build a seaport technically not in Gaza, but in Egypt in el-Arish, right next to Gaza. Then, de facto, it will be Gaza’s seaport and then Gaza can start importing its own merchandise. It will be checked by the Egyptian authority, but all of that was going to really upgrade the quality of life in Gaza. And all of that went down the drain when Hamas did what it did. So, if you come into this conflict with economic peace theories, they all collapsed with the October 7th attacks because if the idea is that at the end of the day, through economic development and through improving the lives of the population, you can deescalate a war,  Hamas did the exact opposite. Hamas for the past two years has been agreeing to many economic projects initiated by Israel and Egypt and the countries around it, and apparently it was just lulling us along. It was preparing an attack and the cost of it is immense to its own population. But apparently it was never the desire for Hamas to govern the population. It has always seen itself as a resistance force, as a liberation force, which is temporarily in Gaza, but has absolutely no intent to actually govern Gaza. And Israel had a had a very rude wake-up call in that sense. 

RP: You described at the moment the kind of the scenario of the two trucks of fuel that go in on a daily basis that goes specifically to circumvent Hamas, to the specific water dissemination and the and the hospitals. What was the supply of the fuel prior to October 7th, and what was the role that Qatar, who gave the $30 million that was divided as I understand, as a third going to the poorest families in a cash payment, a third to the civil servants and a third was also for this diesel supply. So, what was that capacity and where does that stand kind of going forward? 

ER: So, on a regular day again, it’s hard to give an accurate estimate because a lot of it is off grid. A lot of it is just private initiatives buying diesel under the radar of Hamas, and Gaza’s population that doesn’t want to get taxed and things like that. But according to UNRWA estimates, the Gazan population needs around 130,000 litres of diesel every single day to meet the bare minimum. That was the kind of basic consumption in Gaza, 130,000 litres. So, if you bring 2 trucks into Gaza every single day, that’s half. But if we’re talking about war time measures, then the diesel is just for water desalination and the hospitals, then then half is enough. But again, it’s a logistical problem.  

And so, 130,000 litres? Most of it came from Israel. Most of it came from oil that was refined in the oil refineries in Haifa and then given to Gaza, and again, who paid for it? Sometimes it was foreign aid. Sometimes Israel just took the beating, Sometimes it was Qatar. Sometimes it was Egypt that sold the diesel to Gaza, but when Egypt did that it did that at a very high price. Egypt was profiting from it and Qatar was paying the bill. So, Qatar was paying salaries to Hamas senior members, it was paying for diesel, and it was trying to create kind of economic relief to the lower social stratosphere in Gaza, which has been completely neglected by Hamas authorities, which again are not really authorities. They’re more like a gang in control of the Gaza Strip that’s taxing people, or they get hurt by them. So, it’s like a criminal gang in control of the area. It’s not really supplying anything that you would expect from a government.  

When you think about what the role of the governor or a government is to provide basic utilities, it’s to provide education. Hamas doesn’t provide education. It’s UNRWA that runs the schools in Gaza. It’s not providing electricity. Israel is providing electricity, and the rest is coming from private generators that were bought with US, UN and EU aid. Water: all the water desalination facilities are, again, foreign aid. Health: all of the hospitals are run by others. You have the Indonesian hospital; the Qatari hospital and the hospitals are run by foreign aid. Hamas doesn’t do anything other than just tax people and have the monopoly over the means of violence. So, these foreign aid groups, whether they are UN or Qatar etc., some of the money would go straight to Hamas to appease them and the rest of the money would go to the population, into the infrastructure. Because if you give the money directly to the infrastructure, Hamas will just take it. So, you need to pay a bribe to Hamas to get them to approve an infrastructure project that is meant for the population. 

So, you can criticise Qatar and say it’s not okay that Qatar funded Hamas, but Israel also did that. We also gave money to Hamas and the US also gave money to Hamas, and the EU also, because that was the only way to help the population. If you didn’t pay Hamas, Hamas just said no to anything. Israel wanted to develop the gas field for the benefit of the Gazan people and Hamas kept saying no until somehow, through Egypt, Israel managed to bring money to Hamas.  

So, the main impediment for the wellbeing of the Gazan population until now was Hamas. And when you’re looking at the future and asking me if I’m optimistic regarding the future, then again it really depends on what the future is. But in the future in which, let’s say, Hamas no longer has effective control over Gaza (I won’t say eliminated – it’s very hard to eliminate an idea or an ideology, but let’s say the Hamas group no longer has effective control in Gaza and someone else is governing the area) then these projects, all of these things that went down the drain, all of these things that you had to wait for years to do anything in Gaza will be accelerated.  

So, in the day after the war, if Hamas is not in control of Gaza, then all of these projects like ‘Gas for Gaza’, connecting Gaza to the West Bank with infrastructure, building a port in el-Arish and developing the Gaza Marine will happen in a much more accelerated way than if Hamas were to still be in control. So, it’s weird to say it right now because you’re looking at what’s going on in Gaza and it doesn’t seem like there’s a there’s an optimistic kind of way to get out of it. But I’m very optimistic that in five years from now, I know it’s weird to say, but life in Gaza would be better because you would have much better infrastructure. You would have countries coming in and building the infrastructure that they want and not just the ones that Hamas has been approving to tax more. At the end of the day, the end of Hamas and Gaza is good news for the population itself. Of course, there’s a huge price to pay for it, and I’m not diminishing that, but I a

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