Starved of power, Gaza’s Palestinians buckle under an oppressive heatwave

A Palestinian boy cools off with water from a jerrycan held by a man during a heatwave at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on July 2, 2017.  (AFP PHOTO / Mahmud Hams)

Sami, a medical intern, is struggling to sleep. The same heatwave scorching Israel is also roasting the Gaza Strip, where temperatures have been soaring to 37°C (98°F). The heat in his room is overpowering, and the mosquitoes don’t help either. But due to an ongoing electricity crisis, he can’t cool himself off, or even plug in the device that wards off the biting insects.

“Sometimes I go around flipping on different sides of my bed for an hour before I can fall asleep. It’s humiliating,” said Sami, who opted to use an alias for fear of retaliation from authorities in Gaza.

In a series of interviews with The Times of Israel, residents of the Strip described the debilitating effects of the power crisis. It dictates their routine. It turns basic goods, services and actions into luxuries. The normal strategies for cooling off in the summer heat — including showers, swimming, air conditioning and electric fans — have all but disappeared. Even drinking water is an increasingly rare commodity.

Depending on what neighborhood one lives in, say the interviewees, the average Gazan enjoys either 4 to 6 or 2 to 3 hours of electricity a day. Residents have no idea when the power will come on, so when it does, they have to drop what they are doing and rush to complete tasks that require electricity.

“When the power comes, for 2 to 3 hours, you run like a madman to manage to recharge everything, pump water, shower, sleep, work, get online, cool down and breathe, all in 2 hours,” said Ali, a 30-year-old journalist who did not want to use his real name for fear of backlash.

The power can come on in the middle of a workday, or late at night when everyone is sleeping.

During the current power crisis, Ali added, “cold water becomes a luxury, a wish, a dream, a desire. No power means no fridge, means no cold water.”

Khaled, a father of three and a humanitarian worker, who asked that his real name not be used because he is not authorized to speak to the press, also complained about not being able to protect his family from the heat.

“My youngest child is 8-months-old. Last night, he couldn’t sleep, so we just kept fanning him. We used a piece of paper to fan his face, and the minute we stopped, he would wake up,” he said. “My wife goes to do the household things at odd times. You find her up very early in the morning turning on the washing machine because the power just came on. Her sleep schedule is entirely off.”

The residents of Gaza have suffered electricity woes ever since the terrorist group Hamas wrested control of the territory from the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup in 2007. Since then, and up until a few months ago, Gazans received power in eight-hour intervals — eight hours on and eight hours off. That was enough, they said, to sustain a semblance of normalcy and keep the Strip’s infrastructure running.

Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade on the Strip, which Jerusalem says is needed to keep out weaponry and materials that could be used for terror activities or in fighting against Israel. The border authority allows in humanitarian goods and also gives some Gazans permits to enter Israel for medical care.

The current crisis began when the Strip’s only power station shut down in April due to a lack of fuel. Hamas refused to buy more diesel from the PA, which is controlled by the rival Fatah faction, complaining taxes on the fuel were too high.

The crisis deepened when the PA, which has been footing the bill for a portion of Gaza’s electricity that is provided by Israel, decided to cut the payments by 35 percent — part of a series of measures meant to force Hamas to cede control of the Strip.

At the behest of the PA, Israel has been gradually reducing power to the Strip. As of Sunday, Israel has cut its supply to Gaza from 120 megawatts to 80. It says it will ramp the flow back up as soon as someone pays the bill.

On June 21, Egypt stepped in and began exporting diesel fuel to Gaza. That allowed Gaza’s power plant to start working again, providing an output of 70 megawatts, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian Energy and Natural resources Authority.

The Egyptian fuel, however, in addition only a temporary deal with Cairo, only serves to prevent all-out disaster. It doesn’t do much to lift power-starved Gazans out of their private suffering.

Suhair Zakkout, who works for the Red Cross, said the crisis can “really make every single minute of life a struggle.”

She described a case of a boy suffering from asthma who has to be rushed to the hospital up to five times a day.

When he’s hooked up to the nebulizer that helps him breathe, his mother “can easily” handle his care at home, Zakkout said. But without power, every time he has an attack they have to head to the hospital.

She also highlighted the fact that Gaza’s children, who are on summer vacation, have little to do with themselves. The beach is the usual summertime gathering spot, but now the authorities in Gaza have closed off large portions of it. Without electricity, the sewage treatment plants aren’t working properly, and raw waste is being pumped into the sea.

For three days last week, Gaza celebrated the holiday of Eid al-Adha, generally a time when families gather and exchange gifts. But with elevators out of commission, the elderly and disabled were unable to visit with families who live in high-rise apartments, Zakkout said.

She compared the lack of the electricity to being sick. “You only realize how important the antibiotic is when you don’t have it.”

“But” she added, “the doctors here are the politicians.”

Gaza is a ‘sinking boat,’ and water is ‘neck-high’

On Monday, the United Nations gathered diplomats in its Jerusalem offices. The international agency made a plea for $25.2 million to “to stabilize the spiraling humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip” caused by the power crisis.

In a document presented in the meeting, the UN pinpointed three sectors that are quickly crumbling without electricity: water/sanitation, health and food.

The document said water reaches homes for a few hours just every 3-5 days. Desalination plants are functioning at only 15% of their capacity and more than 108 million liters of untreated sewage is flowing everyday into the Mediterranean. Without access to clean water, the UN said, 1.45 million people in Gaza are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases due to the consumption of unsafe water.

Guislain Defurne, head of the delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told The Times of Israel that “Gaza is like a sinking ship.”

“Water is reaching the neck of the passengers,” he said. “They can breathe, but water is still entering the ship. The people of Gaza can only be resilient for so long.”

The food industry is also being severely affected by the crisis.

Due the scarcity of water, irrigation costs are increasing 60 to 75 percent, Defurne said. Much food is also lost because refrigerating it is too expensive.

Supermarkets keep products fresh with the help of generators. But fueling the machines is expensive, and vendors are forced to raise their prices.

The UN said 1.2 million people in Gaza who were already facing food insecurity are now facing increased economic obstacles to eating.

As for who is responsible for the crisis, “most of the anger is directed at Hamas,” said Sami, the medical intern. He said the electricity crisis finds its way into nearly all conversations and that he hears “people repeatedly hating Hamas for this particular reason.”

Khaled, the humanitarian worker, said he understands the feeling of people in Israel who want to protect their children. But he argued Israeli policies were actually undermining their security.

Noting that around 50% of Gazans are under 18, he said, “What kind of generation in Gaza will Israel see in five or 10 years? Suffering from electricity cuts, from lack of water, from wars — the mindset of the youth will develop accordingly.

“People should be given their basic rights. I don’t see any link between Israel’s security and Gaza’s children not getting clean water. You have to break the cycle at some point,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment for this story. In the past Israeli authorities have argued that an internal Palestinian dispute between Hamas and the PA is behind the power crisis in Gaza, and that Israel is not a party to it. Both Israel and the PA charge that Hamas, which openly seeks the destruction of Israel, would have the money to supply Gaza’s power and water needs if it didn’t expend a large part of its resources on armament and preparation for future conflict with the Jewish state.



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