GAZA/CAIRO, Feb 21 (Nidal al-Mughrabi/Reuters) - Egypt will let more fuel into Gaza and increase the amount of electricity it supplies to the Palestinian enclave, Palestinian and Egyptian officials said on Tuesday, a move to ease a power crisis that has embarrassed the ruling Hamas movement.
The Egyptian government said the amount of electricity supplied to Gaza would be increased to 22 megawatts from an existing 17 megawatts already supplied for free. In addition, emergency diesel would also be supplied.
The increase comes in the framework of a quick attempt to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people, Hassan Younes, the Egyptian minister responsible for electricity and power, said in a statement.
Gaza depends heavily on fuel smuggled in from Egypt to keep its lone power station on line. But supplies were unexpectedly cut last week, forcing Hamas, which runs the coastal territory largely cut off by Israel, to impose lengthy blackouts.
Many locals have accused Hamas of mismanaging the situation, relying too heavily on smuggled fuel, which it taxes heavily, rather than seeking alternative sources of energy via legal channels on which it could not impose levies.
The crisis enabled the Palestinian Authority (PA), which holds sway in the West Bank and is often at loggerheads with Islamist Hamas, to intervene with Egypt and broker a deal.
Gaza's energy supply is bad at the best of times, with a rickety infrastructure system badly degraded during fighting over the past five years between Israel and Hamas, which is committed to destroying the Jewish state.
Omar Kittana, head of the PA Energy Authority, told Reuters Egypt was ready to provide the Gaza Strip with emergency diesel in the coming days and would also increase the amount of electricity it supplied to the territory.
In future, regular diesel supplies would be trucked into Gaza via the Israeli border crossing at Kerem Shalom, he said.
Egypt wants to legalize the matter and end the smuggling of fuel because it comes at the expense of the Egyptian people, he told Reuters, saying that the smuggled diesel was subsidized by Cairo and was meant only for use within Egypt.
Kittana said the plan was to increase Egyptian electricity flows to 62 megawatts within two to four months.
Senior Hamas leaders are in Cairo and Taher Al-Nono, the Hamas Gaza spokesman, said he was optimistic that a deal would be struck following further discussions.
There has been widespread anger across Gaza over the recent blackouts, with electricity available just six hours a day during one of the coldest weeks of the year. There has also been a severe shortage of diesel for cars.
Hamas suspended imports of fuel for the power plant from Israel last year and instead relied on smuggled stock, and was totally unprepared for sudden halt to supplies from Egypt.
No explanation was given for the disruption, but some newspaper commentators speculated that Egypt was looking to pressure Hamas to support a drive to mend bridges with President Mahmoud Abbas's PA and back a Palestinian unity government.
Abbas is due to meet Hamas leaders in Cairo on Thursday.
Until fuel starts to flow through Kerem Shalom, which borders Israel, Gaza and Egypt, diesel will continue to arrive through the network of smuggling tunnels that connect southern Gaza to Egypt, a Palestinian source told Reuters.
Officials in Gaza said their old plant produces 80 megawatts at full capacity, while Israel feeds Gaza with 120 megawatts. Kittana said there was a move to resolve longstanding problems by building greater transmission capabilities at the border with Egypt and boost capacity there to 300 megawatts.
The project may take at least 18 months to be ready and by its completion it will resolve the Gaza power problem once for for all, he said, adding it would cost $50 million to complete.
(Additinoal reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)