GAZA CITY // They say necessity is the mother of invention. It is an idiom 1.4 million Gazans are being forced to live every day, and with petrol and diesel now a scarce and expensive commodity, many have had to find alternative means to power their cars. Sometimes, though, the measures leave a lingering stench. Maher Matas, 47, feeds his nine children by carrying passengers in a shared taxi from outside Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. But his 16-year-old, eight-seat stretch diesel Mercedes-Benz reeks like a falafel stand after midnight. And the engine, he complained, is wearing out.
Mr Matas is running his car on cooking oil. With a complete Israeli blockade on fuel supplies to Gaza, there is neither diesel nor petrol at fuel stations and for those like Mr Matas who depend on their vehicles for a living, it is the only option. It works … just, he said. "It coughs, it splutters, it sounds like someone is dying," Mr Matas said about his car, holding up empty cans of the soybean chip frying oil he last used to fill the tank. "It stinks and it destroys the engine. But it works."
It does not deter his passengers. Gaza's streets are fast emptying of private vehicles as tanks run dry. The Hamas police have taken to riding horses. People have no choice but to crowd into whatever taxis are still on the streets. Passengers, Mr Matas said, "no longer complain about the smell, or if, instead of taking seven passengers, I take nine or more". The Gaza Strip has long been an impoverished and overcrowded strip of land. But since the Aqsa intifada broke out in 2000 and especially since Israel enforced a blockade on goods reaching the strip after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, the situation has worsened.
The United Nations has repeatedly warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that unemployment here now hovers at a little more than 35 per cent while poverty affects nearly 80 per cent of Gazans. And the situation is only getting worse. Two weeks ago, Israel completely halted fuel and diesel deliveries to the Strip after Islamic Jihad militants attacked the Israeli fuel terminal across the border from Gaza and killed two employees. Israel also cut the fuel supply to Gaza's sole power plant by half.
On Tuesday, Gaza fuel officials warned that the power station would run out of fuel last night if supplies were not resumed, and said reserves of industrial-grade fuel have dwindled to 400,000 litres since Israel halted fuel deliveries. Should the plant close down, 30 per cent of Gaza's electricity supply would be cut. The threatened shutdown of the Gaza Strip's only power plant was averted yesterday after Israel agreed to pump 980,000 litres of diesel fuel to the territory, enough to run the plant for at least three days. But it is cold comfort for Gazans, with fuel for private consumption now fetching 30 shekels (Dh32) a litre on the black market, five times the normal price.
Mr Matas said Gazans were "magicians" for still managing to cope with such shortages. Samir Naja, 45, manager of the Akila fast food restaurant, was a little less equivocal. "We know how to survive," he said. "But we should be allowed to live in dignity like anyone else." About two weeks ago, when Israel imposed its total closure on any fuel reaching Gaza, he found people turning up at his restaurant before closing time asking him for any leftover falafel oil.
"There is maybe a litre, maximum two, left at the end of the day. Normally I would throw it out. Now I just give it to whoever comes first. If they want to run their cars on it, why not? Personally, I think it's disgusting. It's unhealthy and it stinks horribly." The Akila restaurant uses a mixture of sunflower and corn oil. To be used as fuel, Mr Naja said, it works best after it has been cooked. But the cooking oil is still heavier than diesel, and it clogs up the exhaust and eventually ruins the engine.
And cooking oil only works for diesel engines. If your car runs on petrol, cooking gas is the solution. Ahed Hamadeh, 25, learned his trade as a mechanic in Egypt. There he also picked up a useful tip on how to convert a petrol engine to run on gas. It is a simple procedure, he said, and takes no more than one to three hours. Once installed, the converter is connected to a gas canister, either a little one inside the car or a larger 12-litre gas cylinder more commonly used for ovens that is put in the back and from which a pipe is run to the front.
Unlike the smelly and messy cooking oil in diesel engines, the gas converter is clean and does not ruin the engine. A small car can go as far as 180km to 200km on a 12-litre cylinder, Mr Hamadeh said, and gas is cheaper than petrol. Not surprisingly, Mr Hamadeh has no complaints about the amount of work at his Wafa shop, where a conversion costs 1,300 shekels. "Work is good. I convert about five cars a week these days. It used to be better though. Almost all cars are now converted. A few weeks ago I was doing 15 to 20 conversions a week."
Tawfiq al Kerem, 37, a medical engineer is a satisfied customer. He converted his car two months ago and said he never wants to go back to petrol. Gas, he said, is "better and cheaper". "I am very proud," he said, as Mr Hamadeh was adjusting the flow of gas from the canister in the back of Mr Kerem's car to the engine. "I think this shows that Gazans are steadfast and clever. I'm sure we'll be running our cars on water soon."