From the other end of a crackly telephone line, Abeer’s voice sounds tired and distant. ‘People in Gaza are reaching the maximum that they can cope with. Poverty, financial crisis, the Israeli siege, political isolation with Egypt, and now this: a natural disaster.’
Palestinians are known for their sumud (steadfastness), but the strain for the 1.7 million people on this tiny blockaded Strip is reaching the point where sumud is no longer enough.
Gaza, along with the occupied West Bank, makes up the Palestinian territories. It is often referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison since the Israeli government – with the support of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Egypt and the ‘Quartet’ (the UN, US, EU and Russia) – imposed an economic embargo, siege and blockade in 2005 in an attempt to force Hamas out of power.
The UN estimates that by 2025 Gaza will run out of drinking water
The siege came after decades of occupation: first by Egypt from 1948-67; then, following the Six Day War, by Israel, which seized control of Gaza along with the Syrian Golan Heights, the West Bank (occupied by Jordan from 1948-67) and, temporarily, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsular.
Abeer, a young Gazan journalist, says that winter has become known as the bad season. ‘In December 2008, there was the Israeli Operation Cast-Lead [22 days of airstrikes that resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians]; in November 2011, there was Operation Pillar of Cloud [167 people were killed by airstrikes in the week-long military assault] and in winter 2013, it’s the storm, the electricity blackout, the sewage in the streets. Farmers have had their crops ruined: all this because of the war and natural disasters.’
But the only thing natural about the current crisis in Gaza is the rain.
Some 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes following heavy flooding on 12 and 13 December and have been staying in temporary shelters at schools and mosques. The UN estimates that it will take another week to remove all the floodwater from the streets, and while government officials are securing longer term accommodation for many affected, it may be months before everyone can return to their homes.
From 1 November to 14 December, Palestinians in Gaza had no electricity for around 16 hours a day.
In better times, Gaza is still without power for eight hours a day.
On Saturday, normal electricity outage finally resumed, thanks to a donation of 450,000 litres of fuel donated by Qatar. Abeer feels that the donation is too little, too late, but it means that Gaza’s sole power plant is back on, for now. There is enough fuel to last for three months.
‘The electricity blackout caused raw sewage to flood the streets because it couldn’t be treated: treatment facilitates require electricity to function properly,’ explains Yousef Al-Helou, a Gazan correspondent for Real News Network. The icy flood water has spread the sewage and hampered clean-up efforts.
For eight years, the Israeli government has banned most goods from entering or leaving Gaza – including construction materials and even some medical supplies
The future looks bleak. The electricity switch-on is partial and temporary. The recent winds blew metal roofs away from homes already battered from last year’s airstrikes and the floods have caused yet more damage, but rebuilding without materials is impossible. The threat of an environmental and public health crisis is omnipresent and the UN estimates that by 2025 Gaza will run out of drinking water. Only five per cent of the water Gazans’ extract from their coastal aquifer currently is safe to drink.
For eight years, the Israeli government has banned most goods from entering or leaving Gaza – including construction materials and even some medical supplies. The current crisis has been caused, however, because Egyptian authorities have destroyed 95 per cent of the tunnels that Gazans used to transport materials, animals and people to and from Egypt.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is the only official way in or out of the overpopulated Strip. Closures decreased following Egypt’s 2011 revolution but since former Egyptian President Morsi’s removal by the Egyptian military on 3 July, openings have become increasingly sporadic: currently the crossing is open one to three days every two weeks. Yousef tells me that he waited for the crossing to open for 10 days before finally being able to leave in September. ‘Thousands of people are stuck on each side during a long closure’ he adds. Egyptian authorities are reportedly trying to pressurize Hamas into reconciling with the Palestinian Authority, but they have also accused Gazans of showing solidarity with Morsi.
Yousef is frustrated that Egypt’s refusal to support and help Gazans by opening the Rafah crossing permanently has worsened the collective punishment imposed by Israel. ‘Two thirds of Gazans are not affiliated to Hamas and yet they are punished by Israel, Egypt and the “international community” because of a political party [that, while unpopular, was democratically elected]. Meanwhile, no-one is putting pressure on Israel to end the siege.’
The Israeli government controls the official electrical supply to Gaza, Yousef explains. ‘It became too expensive to keep powering our electrical plant after Egypt closed the tunnels where fuel was brought in more cheaply.
The plant produced 30 per cent of our electricity and 60 per cent came directly from Israel with 10 per cent from Egypt; the supply from Egypt has now stopped. The cause of the electricity shortages is because electricity supply is down by 40 per cent’ – and the political will for a solution is not there.
‘Is Hamas doing enough to help people during the current crisis?’ I ask Abeer. ‘It is doing all it can to support families, to give food [and on 20 December it announced that it will also give compensation] to the people whose homes have been flooded. But it is under siege by Israel and isolated by Egypt – it is so hard,’ she says. ‘Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh spent a night in a school with people affected by the floods to show his solidarity. The Palestinian Authority is in a similar position to Hamas but the response from them is always disappointing.’
An unnatural disaster
The cost of essentials is rising for Palestinians in Gaza. With rising inflation increasing the cost of bread, rice and cooking gas, many are finding it difficult to manage with a shrinking income. ‘Young, educated Gazans can’t find jobs,’ says Yousef.’ People can no longer afford to power their generators to make up the power shortfall due to the past six weeks of high use. Many families are being forced to use unsafe wood fires to cook food, and aid dependency is on the rise.
‘This is the season that people are meant to enjoy time with their families. All over the world, people are preparing for Christmas,’ says Abeer. ‘But there is no support from anyone.’
I ask her how people across the world can help. Abeer doesn’t know. ‘There needs to be a political solution,’ she sighs. Until that happens, Gazans struggle on – they have no choice.