Al Jazeera examines what life is like for one Palestinian family living amongst the rubble of the Gaza Strip.
The electricity crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip affects every facet of daily life, from making bread, to obtaining medical treatment, to earning a living. It also endangers lives: Last week, three siblings were burned alive after the candles they were using during a power cut set their house on fire.
Gaza is currently on a schedule of eight hours off and eight hours on, but even this is unreliable and subject to frequent change. Distribution is unequal, and cuts of up to two hours are common during each eight-hour span. The bombing of Gaza’s power plant in 2006, coupled with sanctions and restrictions imposed as part of Israel’s blockade on the coastal enclave, have exacerbated the crisis, while the electricity network suffered further damage in the 2014 war.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah and the Hamas authorities in Gaza have been at a stalemate on how to solve it. At the funeral of the three siblings last week, senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh blamed the crisis on PA policies, such as imposing fuel taxes and refusing to build a gas pipeline to increase the power station’s capacity.
Gaza’s estimated daily electricity needs range from 350 to 450 megawatts, which would rise to 600 if the Israeli blockade was lifted and Gaza’s economy was allowed to prosper. Gaza currently gets around 200 megawatts a day, well short of its needs, and has started looking to alternatives such solar power – although this is unaffordable for the average resident.
Here, Al Jazeera profiles a cross-section of Gaza residents who have been affected by the power crisis in different ways.
The al-Arair family still lives in makeshift caravans built on the site of their destroyed home in Shujayea.
When night falls during Gaza’s rolling blackouts, darkness envelops entire streets. Headlights from the occasional passing car reveal small groups of children playing by the side of the road, as young men sit on the broken walls of homes that were never rebuilt.
We go to bed worrying about flooding and fires.
The few shops that can afford a backup generator are bright spots in the darkness. A blue glow also emanates from some apartment windows, as families use LED lights powered by car batteries.
This densely populated area of Gaza City has yet to recover from the 2014 Israeli offensive that killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and flattened entire neighbourhoods.
“The electricity network in this area was never rehabilitated,” said Muataz al-Arair, a 23-year-old unemployed electrician who shares two tin-sheet caravans with his family of 10.
Electricity lines hang above Shujayea’s streets, as many families connect illegally to the network.
“When it rains, our caravan is at risk of electrocution,” Muataz’s mother, Asmahan, told Al Jazeera. “The children are afraid of touching the doors. They keep crying until someone comes and opens the door for them. We go to bed worrying about flooding and fires.”
One of her sons has a nine-month-old baby. “Even changing diapers can be a challenge when it’s really cold and we have no hot water,” she said. The family fears the summer months, which can get unbearably hot in the caravans, with fans only usable for a few hours a day. There has been no progress yet on rebuilding their home.
“I can’t count the times I started baking bread, and had to throw it away because the electricity went off,” Asmahan said. “They do not keep to the schedule. And we can’t afford an alternative system.”
At Khan Younis’ Nasser hospital, nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit, specialising in the care of premature babies, work on a permanent state of alert.
“The babies need the incubator to live on. The most important thing is the ventilator. When the electricity cuts off, it’s dangerous. It needs to be continuous,” nurse Amany Sadeq, 28, told Al Jazeera.
The babies need the incubator to live on ... When the electricity cuts off, it's dangerous.
“When the ventilator is down, we have to give manual oxygen to the babies until the electricity comes back,” she added. “Two months ago, we had to continue pumping oxygen to the babies for two hours, as the hospital was completely out and they were trying to stretch an electricity line from the municipality. The temperature of the incubator is also important and needs to be stable.”
While there have not been any cases of death here because of power cuts, the neonatal unit, which typically cares for between six and 10 babies at a time, is one of the most affected by the electricity crisis.
According to the maternity department’s clinical nurse manager, this wing of the hospital experiences three or four power cuts a day. While the hospital has three generators, they often need repairing and cannot always be relied upon, particularly when fuel is scarce in Gaza.
“Solving the electricity crisis in Gaza is not simply about keeping the lights on; it is about saving lives,” Tony Laurance, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians, told Al Jazeera. “The regular fluctuations in power supply as hospitals regularly switch from mains to backup generator power damages sensitive equipment, causes delays to treatment and puts patients at risk.”
Despite improvements in providing hospitals with a continued source of energy supply in the past two years, whether through solar or spare generators, the problem endures.
Sameeh Akila lives on the fifth floor of a high-rise building in Tel al-Hawa, a neighbourhood in southern Gaza City. The former taxi driver, used to travelling freely all across the city, now relies on the presence or absence of electricity to come and go from his home. Life follows the rhythm of the power schedule.
“There are exactly 105 stairs. I have knee problems, so most of the time I avoid walking up when there is no electricity and the elevator is down,” he said.
“Sometimes I go to the local mosque for prayer, then stay out until the electricity comes back. I spend my time at the local supermarket and talking to the neighbours, usually from 11am until 8pm,” he added.
In Gaza, routine daily activities are governed by the electricity schedule. Some families use backup systems in their homes, but these are normally not powerful enough to operate heavy loads, so people rush to do what they need to – washing clothes, baking, charging appliances – before the electricity cuts out again.
“Going to my farm morning after morning to irrigate the fields should be a normal, everyday thing. But not here,” said Sidqi Shaheen, a 36-year-old farmer from Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.
Parts of Shaheen’s fields are located in the 300-metre buffer zone, a no-go area on the border with Israel. Farmers are normally allowed to access their fields up to 100m from the fence, but they often complain of being shot at by Israeli troops stationed on the other side of the border.
“Several times, I had to go to the fields at night to turn on the water pump for irrigation after 10pm when the electricity came back on, and of course it’s dangerous,” Shaheen told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes we only get three hours of electricity all day. The company does not have a schedule. If they had, I could organise my work.”
Earlier this year, the Israeli army sprayed Shaheen’s fields with herbicide, purportedly to “enable security operations” near the border fence. He lost of all his crops, as well as the chance to repay his mounting debt.
Previously, his fields sustained more than $11,000 in damages during the 2014 war, for which he says he was never compensated. This harvest was his hope to get back on his feet.
“Most of the farmers irrigate their farms with water pumped from the aquifer. The engine operates with electricity,” Mohammed Bakri, the Gaza director of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, told Al Jazeera.
“Many farmers have installed new engines [for their irrigation systems] that work on fuel, but even this is not available all the time, and it’s expensive. This increases the cost of production and means farmers lose at least 30 percent of their income.”
Aya Nashwan was only 10 when Hamas took control of Gaza and Israel imposed its blockade, controlling and severely limiting the movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal enclave. She grew up as Israel rationed all of the basic human needs of Palestinians in Gaza, even calculating the calories each person, on average, needed to avoid starvation.
I didn't remember the last time I'd seen the electricity on for the whole day in Gaza.
Like many of her peers, she has never been abroad. Her hope of leaving Gaza led her to enrol in a university course about English literature. An aspiring writer, she joined the writers’ group We Are Not Numbers to tell “the Palestinian truth all over the world”.
Nashwan said that students in Gaza often organise study groups according to the electricity schedule, which varies by area, in order to avoid studying by flashlight or low-intensity LED lights, which have caused her painful headaches while studying for her final high-school exams.
“Once, a few weeks ago, I was so angry,” she told Al Jazeera. “I had a presentation the following day, and came back home to prepare it. I waited the whole day for the electricity to come back on, but it didn’t.
“Another time, I remember that the electricity stayed on all day. I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen the electricity on for the whole day in Gaza. Everyone was wondering what the problem was, and still acted like it would be cut at any moment. It was something like a miracle.”