Hamas to release protesters arrested in electricity demos

GAZA CITY: Hamas said Monday it had agreed to release those arrested in connection with protests over severe electricity shortages that prompted an outpouring of anger in the Gaza Strip.

The interior ministry in Gaza, run by Islamist movement Hamas, said in a statement the decision was made after a meeting between security chiefs and political movements in the Palestinian enclave.

It did not say how many people were being released, but rights activists said it involved dozens of people.

A series of protests were held in the Gaza Strip over the past two weeks, including one on Thursday when thousands in northern Gaza walked to the local headquarters of the electricity company.

Security forces dispersed the protesters violently, with shots fired in the air and a number of journalists beaten up.

A prominent comedian was also detained on Wednesday after he posted on social media a call for Hamas to give up power.

The Gaza Strip had been left with around four hours of electricity per day as winter temperatures drove a spike in demand.

Gaza’s electricity authority said Monday it was returning to providing power in eight-hour intervals after Qatar pledged $12 million toward resolving the problem.

Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah in a news conference Monday in the West Bank city of Ramallah thanked Qatar as well as Turkey for their help with Gaza’s power.

The strip’s sole electricity plant has seen fuel shortages in a dispute over unpaid bills and taxes with the Palestinian Authority, based in the occupied West Bank and dominated by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party.

The Palestinian Authority handles fuel purchases from Israel since the Israeli authorities do not deal directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation.

The PA then requires Hamas to reimburse it for bills and taxes, but Gaza’s electricity authority faces cash shortages because nearly 70 percent of households do not pay their bills, either because of poverty or lack of collection, the UN estimates.

The power plant, which has also been previously bombed by Israel, already functioned below capacity even before the recent crisis.

A spokeswoman for COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry unit that implements government policies in the Palestinian territories, told AFP that 390,000 litres of fuel entered Gaza via Israel on Monday, without providing details.

Israel’s decade-long blockade of the Gaza Strip further complicates the situation. Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008.

Besides their one power plant, Gaza’s two million people also rely on electricity imports from Israel and Egypt.