In November of 2008, the backup batteries unexpectedly failed at a power plant in the Gaza Strip. Almost anywhere else, the incident would have been a blip, forgotten a week later. But this Gaza — blockaded by Israel and Egypt and cut off from the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank. It’s a place where more than a million and a half people inhabit a strip of land not even one-third the size of Los Angeles…and where there is only one power plant.

Within days, the plant’s desperate engineers came up with a novel solution: They hooked up 170 twelve-volt car batteries to restart the plant’s turbines. To everyone’s amazement, including the engineers themselves, the impromptu kludge actually worked. “It was an abnormal situation,” notes Rafiq Maliha, one of the plant’s managers, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

Triumphs, even small ones, are uncommon these days in Gaza, which has endured a devastating run of strife, death, and dysfunction. A three-week war that began in late December 2008 killed 1660 Palestinians and 13 Israelis and left 4000 homes and 80 government buildings wrecked or seriously damaged. Since 2007, Gaza’s 360 square kilometers have been controlled by Hamas, a militant Islamic group that much of the world, including the European Union and the United States, regards as a terrorist organization.

Conceived in 1994 during a short-lived interlude of relative tranquility that began after the Oslo Accords, the Gaza power plant, which operates under the official name of the Gaza Power Generating Co., was part of a larger blueprint to lessen Palestinian dependence on Israel for such basic municipal services as electricity, education, and security. But today, with the other parts of the blueprint long abandoned, the plant’s 100 or so engineers are reduced to operating the 140-megawatt plant in ways its designers never anticipated.

Some days, notes Maliha, the power plant doesn’t even have the fuel needed to provide transportation for its employees, a nightmare for a facility that requires 24-hour support. Other days, something as simple as a faulty temperature sensor can shut down operations, because the plant has no easy way to obtain a new one. “We managed to survive up till now, but things are becoming more difficult,” says Maliha. “We try to manage with temporary solutions, but then the temporary becomes permanent, and suddenly you have a complete failure.”

Like the territory itself, Gaza’s electrical system — and its lone power plant — seems stuck in a kind of chaotic limbo. Life for a plant engineer here is a daily struggle to keep the operation running amid chronic shortages of fuel, spare parts, expertise, and basic building materials. Somehow, this solitary power plant wheezes on. This is what engineering looks like at the edge, where engineers keep the lights on amid bombings, embargoes, intrigue, and instability in one of the world’s longest-simmering combat zones.

You approach the power plant in central Gaza on a dirt road in an area that seems to lack any modern infrastructure. Today, on a weekday afternoon in early June, the facility looks all but deserted. A cat is asleep in the guard station. A sign near the entrance to the plant, advertising the number of days with no accidents, hasn’t been updated since 2008. Maliha, who greets a visitor, looks exhausted. He’s been involved with the plant since its inception and is accustomed to patiently explaining its difficulties to visitors. An alarm goes off somewhere in the plant as he is speaking, and he doesn’t even pause.

With its four 24-MW diesel-fueled combustion turbines and two 22-MW steam units, this plant was the longtime dream of Palestinians who wanted to wean Gaza of its total dependence on Israel for power. “This plant was supposed to cover demand for the whole Gaza Strip,” Maliha explains. But today, only half those turbines are working, and the plant is producing only about 60 out of a potential 140 MW.

The US $140 million project was troubled from the start. Construction had been under way for barely a year when the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in 2000. Worsening relations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority made any projects more difficult to complete, not to mention risky for private investors. Nor did the situation get any better when the plant began operating in 2002, shortly after one of the initial investors, the notorious U.S.-based energy firm Enron, collapsed.

Today one of the biggest problems is getting enough fuel. It’s one of the many problems you encounter running a power plant in a war zone. Since 2007, Israel has restricted the amount of fuel it rations to Gaza, leaving the plant to operate at only partial capacity. At one point in 2007, the European Union, which pays for the fuel brought into Gaza, cut off the supply because it was concerned Hamas was skimming money. Deliveries soon resumed, and the plant continues to get the rationed fuel. Under the original blueprint, the plant would have been fueled by natural gas, but today it is still dependent on liquid diesel fuel. “Everything here is temporary,” Maliha says with a wry laugh. He estimates that the plant, which receives about 2.2 million liters of rationed diesel fuel per week, needs over twice that amount, about 4.9 million liters, to operate at full capacity. Without fuel, the power plant stops, and when the power plant stops, things start to break. “Fuel tanks without fuel become rusty, and they’re destroyed,” Maliha says. The storage tanks grow rusty, the rust contaminates the fuel, and the contaminated fuel damages the equipment. Then the turbines shut down, leading to more failures when engineers try to start them up again.

Gaza appears to carve a rectangular, 41-km chunk out of Israel, its width ranging between 6 km at its narrowest and 12 km at its widest, at the Egyptian border. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War left the strip under Israeli control, which remained the status quo until 2005, when Israel unilaterally pulled its military forces out of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians could then move about freely within Gaza, but Israel’s disengagement, and the subsequent political ascendancy of Hamas within Gaza, led to the present situation, in which Gaza is effectively in international limbo and its residents cut off from the world.

The region’s airspace, borders, and coastline continue to be under Israeli control. But other than allowing for basic humanitarian aid, Israel neither officially acknowledges any legal responsibility for Gaza nor recognizes the territory as an independent state.

During the 40-year occupation, Israel provided Gaza with electricity. However, the 1993 Oslo Accords — the first real milestone in attempts to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — gave the Palestinians greater authority over municipal services like the electricity grid. The Palestinian National Authority dreamed of building its own power plant in Gaza. But those ambitious plans to take control came at a time when the population was soaring, greatly increasing pressure on the grid.

Gaza’s total demand, according to estimates by the Gaza Electricity Distribution Co. (GEDCo), is 244 MW. But even when the power plant is up and running, Gaza gets at most only 198 MW. The power plant — when it’s working — contributes about 60 MW; 121 MW are brought in from Israel (but only if all 10 feeding lines are in good order), and Egypt powers the southern Gaza city of Rafah with another 17 MW. So the deficit, under the best of circumstances, is 18 percent. Adding to the complexity, the “grid” is not actually integrated, meaning that power from Egypt, Israel, and the power plant can’t be diverted within Gaza to make up for losses in another part. That means, for example, if the power plant stops working, electricity from Egypt can’t be rerouted to Gaza City.

If anything, it’s remarkable that Gaza’s grid isn’t in worse shape. In 2006, Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza, and after a series of violent clashes with Fatah (its main political rival), took over control of the government and security forces. Israel bombed the power plant in late 2006, destroying six transformers and halting operations; the bombing was in retaliation for Hamas’s June kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (Shalit is believed to be alive and in captivity somewhere in Gaza). The Palestinian National Authority protested the bombing of a civilian power plant, while the Israeli military described the strike as a military blow aimed at Hamas. The bombing left thousands of Gazans in the dark and pushed the sewage and water systems, which rely on electricity, to the brink of collapse.

The power plant sputtered back to life in 2007; it was partially insured by the Overseas Private Investment Corp., an agency of the U.S. government, Israel’s staunchest ally. But the plant had barely been resuscitated when another setback hit. Israel, declaring Hamas a “hostile entity,” sharply curtailed electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza, setting off the first of what would be periodic energy crises that continue to this day.

The most recent war, which began on 27 December 2008, brought yet another catastrophe to Gaza. Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a three-week military offensive retaliating against Hamas for a series of rocket attacks that fell on civilian areas in southern Israel. The military operations, which combined strikes from the air and sea with a ground assault, damaged transformers and several of the transmission lines that brought power from Israel. Gaza also lost a line from Egypt during the offensive. Lacking fuel, the power plant shut down completely. Vast swaths of Gaza were left once again to fend for themselves in massive blackouts.

The Israeli offensive also knocked out three of the four remaining lines from Israel to the Gaza Governorate. So for the first two weeks of the war, most residents of Gaza City, Gaza’s main population center, lived in darkness. By the time Israeli forces withdrew in late January 2009, GEDCo reckoned that 40 percent of the population was entirely without electricity, while the other 60 percent were getting only intermittent power. In all, GEDCo estimates that the military operations caused some $10 million in damages to its systems.

Even in wartime, life goes on. GEDCo still has to deal with everyday issues, like ensuring that customers pay for their electricity use. That’s no small feat in a region where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line: GEDCo estimates that it manages to collect only about 25 percent of what it is owed by its customers.

The company’s Web site proclaims that “paying the bill is a religious obligation.” Every day in Gaza, GEDCo’s collectors fan out over the territory with sheets of paper identifying delinquent customers. If the customer refuses to pay or agree to a payment plan, the technician will often immediately climb a pole and physically disconnect the cables. Some of the disconnected customers attempt to reconnect the line themselves or hire someone else to do it. In that case, GEDCo takes drastic action, and the phrase “cutting the power” becomes more than a figure of speech, as this reporter saw on a sunny afternoon in late May.

Perched atop a wooden pole on a Gaza City street lined with buildings still pockmarked by mortars from Israel’s recent military incursion, a maintenance worker at first glance appeared to be repairing a power line leading to a two-story building. But a split second later, the line dangled free — the building’s connection to the Gaza grid had just been severed.

Unlike GEDCo, a public utility, the power plant is a commercial operation that must produce and sell electricity to stay in business. The Gaza power plant has been operating at only partial capacity — today mostly because of the blockade. For the moment, only four of the plant’s six turbines are running. At one point, the power plant’s managers had hoped to add an additional six turbines to the facility, bringing total generation up to 280 MW. But now, because some of the plant’s transformers were damaged during the war, it cannot handle full output from even the working turbines. Siemens, the turbines’ manufacturer, sends its technicians to work at the plant, but only if the power plant pays a private security company to protect them.

Rebuilding after the most recent war, with key parts unavailable or in very short supply, demanded resourcefulness. GEDCo had to erect wooden poles to replace damaged medium-voltage steel poles. But even if GEDCo could get steel poles, it couldn’t obtain the concrete needed to set the poles, because as part of the economic blockade, Israel does not allow any concrete into Gaza, making it an especially prized commodity.

Major Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli defense ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which is responsible for Gaza issues, says Israel has not received any applications for cement or steel poles from the Palestinian power authority. And while some equipment was approved for the power plant, Inbar says, some other items were denied for what Israel determined were security concerns. Inbar acknowledges that the long list of needed items must be reviewed individually, which makes for a long wait.

The blockade has also led to shortages of certain wires and cables, so GEDCo has had to use whatever it has on hand. In many cases the cable sizes are inadequate for the loads, leading to excessive heat and high resistive losses. Lines that should be replaced are left in place with splices and connectors. Transformers are routinely overloaded, admits Suheil Skeik, GEDCo’s general manager. “We risk them by overloading, but we have no other way,” he says.

For the power plant, the inability to get parts and supplies has been particularly challenging. Israel’s offensive has been over for nearly a year, but the power plant must still clear every spare part with Israeli authorities, a system that Maliha insists is unworkable. Sometimes the plant gets approval; sometimes it doesn’t. “If you are running a power plant, you need a continuous flow of spare parts and consumables,” he notes.

Skeik’s radical solution is to eliminate Israel from the energy equation. Fueling the plant, he explains, means relying on Israel. But without energy and fuel from Israel, what is the future of the grid? “We look to Egypt as our solution,” he maintains. But it’s hard to see how that would work, because Egypt also cooperates in the Gaza blockade. For several years, there have been plans to put in place ten 22-kilovolt feeder lines to increase the electricity supply from Egypt; but the project, which was to be funded by the Islamic Development Bank, has been put on hold practically from the day it was first proposed in 2003.

Israel continues to insist that the weekly fuel ration is enough. That fuel enables the plant to produce about 65 MW, according to Israel’s estimates; Inbar insists that this is “the needed amount for the humanitarian needs of the civil population.” Assuming the situation remains stable, Israel will provide “enough power supply for the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.” Israeli spokesman Inbar did not say how Israel determines the amount required for these needs.

The Palestinians see Israel’s actions differently. “The Israelis want everything closed down: electricity, materials, everything,” says Skeik.

One thing is certain: The power situation, like the political situation, has reached a seemingly insurmountable impasse. “It was the first of its kind in the Palestinian National Authority,” recalls Maliha of the power plant’s construction. “It was promising because at the beginning, there was talk about regional power sharing between different countries.” Now, he says, all those dreams have evaporated. There are currently no plans for expansion.

Asked about the future, Maliha responds with an answer typical in Gaza these days. “You cannot make a plan; there is no plan,” he says. “You live for the day.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Powerless in Gaza.”

Sharon Weinberger’s reporting trip to Gaza was supported by The Nation Institutes Investigative Fund.