Gaza’s energy crisis increases risk of fires

Primitive heating devices have led to serious burns and deaths, with children particularly at risk, doctors say.

Gaza fires
Gaza has been suffering the effects of electricity shortage since Israel bombed Gaza's single power plant [Walaa Ghussein/Al Jazeera]

Khuzaa, Gaza – It was 4am when Maysa Abu Reida discovered the room was full of smoke. The family’s electric heater had fallen onto the floor where 24-year-old Reida had been sleeping alongside her husband and three children. The heater burned through the blanket on the rough floor, and the fire spread to the fabric of the family’s shelter.

Reida panicked and woke her husband, ushering their children outside. They spent almost two hours in the biting cold until the fire was extinguished. Their 10-day-old child had inhaled smoke, her chest gripped in spasms in the chill dawn air. Luckily, no one died.

“If I didn’t wake up as soon as I smelled the smoke, the five of us would’ve been gone,” Reida told Al Jazeera.

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Like many other residents of Gaza who are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, Reida’s family has been living in a transitional shelter after losing their house in the 2014 Gaza war. Israel destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes during the war, with more than 90,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million people still homeless, according to UNRWA, the UN’s refugee agency. 

Many of the displaced now live in shelters, including UNRWA schools, and roughly constructed tents next to their destroyed homes. Gazans have also been suffering the effects of a chronic electricity shortage since Israel bombed parts of the territory’s single power plant in 2006. 

The situation here is cruel. They told us it was temporary until they rebuilt our houses. We're living a primitive life, depending on fire for almost everything.

by Zayda al-Najjar, Gaza resident

Political feuding in Gaza has prolonged the electricity crisis, with Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, accusing the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank of imposing taxes on fuel supplies to the power plant, disrupting the supply. Israel also limits cooking gas supplies into Gaza.

The Israeli shelling of Gaza’s sole power plant last summer left the station unable to operate at full capacity. Today, Palestinians in Gaza have just six hours of electricity every 18 hours. Even with electricity purchased directly from Israel and Egypt, officials warn the blackout hours will increase in the summer.

In addition to the lack of power, many families living in shelters lack cooking gas and heating elements, forcing them to use open fires and candles, increasing the risk of accidents. Burns have become more frequent, doctors say. 

In January, two children seeking refuge from the dark of one of Gaza’s frequent power cuts lit a candle in their bedroom. They perished as the room was engulfed in flames and smoke. Their deaths are among a rising numbers of fatalities and injuries caused by fire-related accidents since the start of Gaza’s electricity crisis, according to al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights. 

“The situation here is cruel,” said Zayda al-Najjar, a 65-year-old Gaza resident living in a temporary shelter in Khuzaa. “They told us it was temporary until they rebuilt our houses. We’re living a primitive life, depending on fire for almost everything.”

Inside Najjar’s shelter, her grandchildren gathered around a stove. The children love collecting wood and helping her light the fire, Najjar said, noting they frequently play around the flames because it is warm.

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Most people in Gaza now use back-up generators, batteries and other alternatives, but these are only available to those who can afford them. Others light candles or remain in the dark.

In addition, there is a wood-burning fire pit in front of every trailer or caravan used as a shelter in the war-torn territory. At sunrise, women cook on these open fires, making bread for the day’s meals. At sunset, everyone gathers in the same spot to keep warm. 

The majority of patients in the burn unit at al-Shifa, Gaza’s main hospital, are children, said Dr Maher Sokkar. Many have been scalded while their mothers attempted to boil water on very basic heaters inside their shelters.

Three-year-old Hassan Awad, who lives in the Jabalia refugee camp, was playing in the kitchen during one of Gaza’s blackouts and did not see his mother heating water on a paraffin stove. As he ran around the small space, the little boy collided into something, and the pot came tumbling off the stove. He is now in Shifa’s burn unit, with deep and serious burns. 

Dr Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the burn unit, told Al Jazeera that he had seen a recent increase in the number of children admitted to his unit, noting: “Most injuries are caused by home accidents, due to the use of primitive heaters and stoves as a result of the electricity crisis.”

Source: Al Jazeera