Middle East

In Gaza, power cuts and rumours hamper reconciliation

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: A smart white villa with a red roof sits uninhabited but under close guard in Gaza City, awaiting the return of its owner, Fatah head and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Members of the Hamas government's security services surround the building, which fell into their hands when long-running tensions between rival factions Hamas and Fatah boiled over into full-blown conflict in the summer of 2007.

The Islamist group routed Abbas's Fatah movement, forcing it to cede control of the Gaza Strip, including the property.

"There's no one inside," says one Hamas guard with a close-cropped beard.

In January, Hamas announced it would return the building to Abbas, but with a reconciliation deal between Fatah and the Islamist group stalling, the chances of the leader returning to the territory to reclaim the property seem slim.

"It's ready for a visit, today if necessary," the guard says, with a smile.

Hamas and Fatah agreed last year to reconcile, signing a deal that called for the quick formation of a consensus government, which would pave the way for presidential and legislative elections by around May 2012.

But the process has hit repeated roadblocks, with the formation of the interim government proving particularly thorny.

Gaza's worsening electricity crisis, caused by a lack of fuel supplies that has plunged the territory into darkness in recent months, has soured the atmosphere further.

Charges of conspiracy are rife, and Hamas security forces have set up roadblocks and arrested dozens of Fatah members and individuals they accuse of "spreading rumours."

Fatah has protested the detention or summons to interrogation of "hundreds" of its members, including its spokesman in Gaza.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, based in the coastal enclave, said in a statement last week that it was "gravely concerned" by the summons issued to at least 80 Fatah members.

"They said that they were mainly questioned on allegations of their factional role against the government in Gaza in light of the power crisis," the centre said.

Hamas's interior ministry has acknowledged the arrest of more than one hundred people for "propagating rumours about the electricity and fuel shortage."

"There are people who say that official in Gaza are not suffering from this crisis, that's not true," Gaza's energy authority spokesman Ahmad Abu al-Amrin said. "The electricity shortage in Gaza is political."

Gaza's only power plant shuddered to a halt on March 23, just 48 hours after Israel delivered 450,000 litres of fuel paid for by Abbas's Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, with Hamas denouncing what it called a "conspiracy."

"US, Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Ramallah are working together to overthrow Hamas and tighten the blockade on Gaza," Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya announced.

The statement was the most provocative and explicit jab made since the signing of the reconciliation deal by the two sides on April 27, 2011 in Cairo.

Elsewhere in Gaza City, another smart villa lies quiet -- the Gaza headquarters of the Central Election Commission.

Its local director Jamil al-Khaldi is waiting for the green light from the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, to begin key work to prepare for elections, including updating voter registers.

"We have around 540,000 registered voters in the Gaza Strip, and we need to register close to 220,000 new ones" to update electoral lists that are nearly five years old.

The commission's president Hanna Nasser met with Haniya two months ago.

"Since then, Dr Nasser has sent him two letters seeking permission to open the centres to update the electoral lists," Khaldi said.

"Until now, we've received no response, neither positive nor negative."

On Hamas's television station, the electricity crisis is noted with a little lightbulb icon that runs over all programmes in the top left-hand corner of the screen.

It flickers slightly then goes out, its weak light faltering like the prospects for reconciliation as seen from Gaza.





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