Palestinians were lining up at petrol stations for a few more gallons before fuel runs out. Their government couldn’t pay the bill, and so the Israeli petrol company cut off supplies, a direct result of economic sanctions aimed at the Hamas-led regime.
After the cut-off yesterday, Mujahid Salame, head of the Palestinian petrol authority, predicted fuel supplies would run out in many areas by today. “If this happens, there will be a humanitarian crisis,” he said.
The West halted aid to the Palestinian government when Hamas took over six weeks ago. Some hoped economic hardships would turn the people against the Islamic militants they elected to lead them.
With medicine running out at hospitals, public sector salaries two months late and now, empty fuel tanks, the assumptions are about to be tested. Will the people blame Hamas, or will they turn against their traditional targets, Israel and the US?
So far there has been no anti-Hamas groundswell, but as hardships intensify and deprivation worsens, anger is sure to spill over.
An end to fuel supplies could cripple hospitals, halt food deliveries and keep people home from work, a devastating scenario for an economy already ravaged by the sanctions.
Dor Energy, the Israeli company that is the sole fuel provider to the Palestinians, cited growing debts for its decision, Palestinian officials said.
Dor officials declined comment. The company has been the sole provider of petrol to the Palestinian areas since interim peace agreements were signed in the mid-1990s.
Dr Moaiya Hassanain, a top Health Ministry official in Gaza, warned that the area’s hospitals, already suffering from a shortage of medicines, would cease to function without fuel.
He said ambulances would stop running, employees wouldn’t be able to get to work and gas generators, used to compensate for ongoing electric outages, would be hobbled.
“It’s going to be a disaster for us in the medical profession,” he said, speaking at a Gaza City gas station where he helped fill the gas tanks of several ambulances.
In the West Bank, the situation was worse. Many stations were out of fuel, in some cases laying their dry nozzles on the ground.
“The only thing I’ve been doing for the past day is tell drivers that I don’t have any petrol,” said Awad Dabous, who works at a gas station in the West Bank town of Jenin. A sign at the station said simply: “Sorry, no petrol”.
In Nablus, a line of taxi drivers said they stopped working. One driver, Mahmoud Tourabi, said he would try to drive to a nearby Jewish settlement in hopes of filling his tank.
“They may kill me there, so I will be the martyr of the petrol,” he quipped.
The Western nations insist that Hamas renounce violence and recognise Israel before they renew aid. The US and European Union, the two biggest donors, consider Hamas a terrorist group. The Islamic group has rejected the demands.
Instead, it has raised some $70m (€55.1m) from Iran and Arab donors. Under US pressure, banks have refused to transfer the funds to Hamas, and the money remains stuck in an account in Egypt.
Compounding Hamas’ woes, Israel has cut off about $55m (€43.3m) in monthly transfers of tax money it collects for the Palestinians. Israel has placed the money in escrow.
Israel dipped into this money last month to pay Palestinian bills to government-owned companies, like the Israeli electric monopoly. The Palestinians rely on Israel for many key supplies, including fuel, electricity and water.
Asaf Shariv, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel would “absolutely not” bail out the Palestinians in this case. Dor has threatened to cut off supplies twice before this year, only to be paid at the last minute by the Palestinians.
Shariv said that since the Palestinian government resells petrol to consumers there is no reason for it not to have money to pay its debts. Palestinian officials said the cash-strapped government is one of the biggest users of petrol and is unable to pay the bill.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday that Israel would consider releasing the tax funds "for direct humanitarian needs, such as medicines, such as health needs”. However, she told Channel 10 TV, the money could not go to the Palestinian Authority to pay salaries.
Briefing reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday evening, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, said humanitarian aid is not enough. “It’s true that there are a lot of expenses of schools and medicine, but salaries remain the basic issue,” he said.