Under darkness, Gazans mark a new year

Lydia Noon speaks to residents suffering Israel’s decade-long blockade.

View of Gaza's marina. © Jason Shawa

Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism set up in 2014, has tightened these restrictions, says Shawa.

A father and his two daughters were three of the first Palestinians to suffer injuries related to Gaza’s electricity crisis this year. They have been left with moderate burns after a candle the girls lit to do their homework started a fire in their apartment in Gaza City on 2 January.

‘At least five children have burned to death and many more injured over the last few years in similar incidents,’ Gazan Abu Ahmed writes in a message to me at night, on an electricity-dependent device. There will be more candle-related disasters during a winter of 20-hour blackouts in the crowded Strip.

As nightly temperatures plummet, so do the number of hours of electricity. Two million Palestinians have been living on three to four hours of electricity per day for the past two months, with LED lights, batteries and candles the only substitutes for most families. Expensive generators and car battery inverters pick up the slack for some households and businesses while the most privileged install solar panels; a luxury few can afford.

These alternatives fill some electricity gaps but cannot power many appliances such as washing machines, baby bottle sterilizers and water pumps, says Gazan translator and blogger Jason Shawa. ‘So you need to shift all washing, ironing and bathing to when you have electricity. Many people do such chores after midnight because that is when the power comes on’.

The power cuts are devastating for Gaza’s hospitals. Incubators, ventilators and other life-saving equipment are powered by industrial generators but fuel, and money, is running out. Even if hospitals had access to enough fuel, generators are only designed to provide emergency electricity, not for hours, days and months on end.

Israel’s decade-long military blockade has helped create Gaza’s electricity and resource crisis.

The Strip’s sole power plant has been the target of repeated airstrikes during Israel’s three military bombardments of Gaza since the start of the siege. It has also been forced to shut down several times due to a lack of fuel.

Egyptian and Israeli electricity grids provide some of Gaza’s electricity but the two countries have severely restricted fuel imports into the tiny Middle Eastern enclave since the blockade began in 2007. Egyptian and Israeli authorities have destroyed the majority of tunnels built between Gaza and Egypt over the past few years, meaning it is no longer possible to smuggle in cheap diesel and other basic necessities.

Bombing during Israel's Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

Jason Shawa

Caravans for winter

A thousand families are still living in caravans and tents two and a half years since Israel’s 50-day military bombardment during July-August 2014, with only an extra layer of nylon keeping out the cold and harsh winds.

The offensive, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, killed 2,251 Palestinians and 72 Israelis, and destroyed 70 per cent of Gaza’s infrastructure.

Some 20,000 homes were destroyed or so severely damaged that they became uninhabitable, leaving 100,000 people internally displaced and sheltering in makeshift shacks, schools, relatives’ homes, rented accommodation or in their dangerously damaged homes. Some families are still living in tents next to their destroyed houses because they are afraid that if they leave, their land might be taken – the only thing they have left.

Along with fuel, the military blockade has limited construction materials entering the Strip. The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism set up in 2014, has tightened these restrictions, says Shawa.

Lack of funds have also prolonged the displacement of Palestinians: at Cairo’s ‘Reconstructing Gaza’ conference in October 2014, $3.5 billion was pledged to help. But only $1.6 billion has been donated so far, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Aidwatch.

The diversion of media attention to other parts of the region such as Syria and Iraq has taken the pressure off countries to deliver on their promises, while some donors say that the lack of unity between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas party in the Gaza Strip is frustrating efforts to fund projects, but the real issue, tweets Jewish Voice for Peace director Rebecca Vilkomerson, is the Israeli blockade:

Locked in

This June will mark the 10th anniversary of Israel’s military siege on Gaza. Movement has been restricted for Palestinians living in the 25-mile long enclave since the early 1990s, but when Hamas came to power in June 2007, Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade. Many Gazans describe this blockade as living in the world’s largest prison, with two million people denied access to other parts of Palestine and the rest of the world.

Since the start of the blockade, Egyptian authorities have also restricted movement by closing the Rafah crossing into Eygpt – and the only way in and out of Gaza – for days and weeks at a time.

The new year does not signal renewed hope for Gazans.

‘We are forgotten here, but we are desperate’, says 24-year-old Rana via WhatsApp. ‘Most people are even denied a medical permit to leave Gaza for urgent treatment’.

Shawa feels the same. ‘I see no glimmer of hope’, he writes. ‘We are totally locked in by Israel; they control every single aspect of what leaves or enters Gaza, be it people or food or medication or anything else. Egypt too has us locked in from their side’.

‘Okay, there is big hope’, starts Abu Ahmed, before abruptly changing track: ‘but hope was there for many years and nothing changed. Things are even worsening’.

The UN agrees. In 2015, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published a report which said that because of ‘de-development’ caused by the economic and military blockade, Gaza may be uninhabitable by 2020 ‘if current economic trends persist’. Hurtling towards that deadline and Gazans’ basic necessities for life – drinking water, shelter, physical and mental health and employment – are becoming ever more scarce.

Rubble from homes destroyed in Israeli bombardments is used to expand the marina.

Jason Shawa

Running out

Only 10 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza have access to safe drinking water, and, according to the World Bank, unless desalination and waste water plants are given approval by Israeli authorities to replenish Gaza’s depleted natural aquifer by 2020, the water crisis will be irreversible. For now, Gaza’s poorest drink salty and dirty water from the tap, risking disease, others use water filters or buy expensive bottled water.

Unemployment is the highest in the world at 43 per cent, with young people under 30-years-old particularly affected by the lack of work. The blockade has taken 50 per cent off Gaza’s GDP and were it not for the multiple restrictions and Israel’s military bombardments, Gaza’s GDP would be four times higher.

One third of children displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder even before 2014’s military offensive, say The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, with many children having been born under siege and living through multiple bombing campaigns.

With Gaza at breaking point, will the rest of the world finally put pressure on the Israeli administration to end the siege?

‘Not with US President Donald Trump at the helm of the “free world” now,’ writes Shawa. ‘We have heard some of his opinions on the Middle East and none of them are promising.’

‘No. Other countries could end our suffering but they let Israel do what it wants,’ says Khan Yunis resident Rana, as her wifi signal comes and goes. ‘But we will keep on surviving, just as we always have’.