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With No Electricity Amid Unprecedented Heat Wave, Gaza Houses Become Furnaces

The Israeli occupation is “turning our basic needs like food and electricity into wishes,” says one Palestinian mother.

Palestinian children seen carrying plastic water jugs amid a heat wave and power cuts in the Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on July 31, 2023.

It’s dark as usual at night in the Gaza Strip, as routine power cuts plunge Palestinian homes into darkness. But what has been different during the past few weeks is an unprecedentedly stifling summer heatwave. With no electricity, people are getting pushed to their limit.

Dina Ahmad, 33, holds her newborn baby. They both look sticky and sweaty. She puts her son’s head in her hand, and the other hand holds a piece of paper, using it as a makeshift fan. The toddler breastfeeds — intermittently due to the extreme heat — before letting out a wail and returning to his mother’s breast. Dina’s three older sons understand the situation a bit better. Each of them holds up their own makeshift fan and furiously tries to generate some air.

They all sit on the floor — it’s much cooler than the couches. Sometimes, during particularly hot afternoons at home, Dina sprays the floor with water as they sit on the tiles for hours in wet clothes. Even though their doors and windows are flung wide open, the heat inside their apartment is unbearable, with no fans, air conditioning, or cold water in the fridge.

The power is off during the day for over 10 hours. The power schedule shifts in a complicated dance as the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant struggles to ration electricity for the population of over two million people. It’s normal for people in Gaza to spend half of their days without power now. Over the years, the electricity schedule has gradually decreased the number of hours people get power during the day, but the standard has generally been eight hours on, eight hours off. Last winter, the Gaza power crisis forced families to use alternative (and hazardous) fuel sources to heat their homes in the cold winter months. In some cases, families died due to accidents from improper use of these fuel sources.

The summer is different. As demand for power increases during these months, the power company has to ration electricity even further.

As Dina’s family languishes in their home, they pine over the ability to have just a single fan on. “Sometimes I feel that the heat can kill,” Dina sighs. “I find myself imagining that my kids will suffocate.”

“If you can’t turn on a fan during the hottest part of the year, doesn’t that explain a lot about how we live?” she asks.

A social media campaign went viral during July in Gaza, as people reached a breaking point due to the extent of the power crisis. The social media messages spread following the electricity company’s announcement of a new policy requiring customers to replace their old manual electricity meter with a new smart one provided by the company. The new meter would force people to pre-pay to use the electricity. For many people in Gaza in the midst of an economic crisis, that requirement is not within reach. Many people are already struggling to pay their bills on time and would rarely have enough money to pay in advance.

In a press conference held in the government media office in Gaza in July, the general director of the electricity company, Maher Ayesh, explained the main issue underlying the power crisis — in short, energy needs in residential buildings and other facilities have all been increasing as the population has increased, but available resources have stagnated, or in fact decreased, in Gaza.

“We have been facing a growing inability to supply electricity since 2000, and that inability only increases as our limited resources decrease over time,” Ayesh said.

A single power plant operates Gaza. The total need for power in Gaza is about 600 megawatts. The available amount is 250. Israel controls the amount of fuel Gaza receives.

While the messages on social media demanded that the power company improve its services, the company claims that the smart meters will benefit people, as they will optimize their use of power and increase it to 50%.

“The company goal is that all the 300,000 customers in Gaza will convert to smart meters by the end of 2024,” said Ayesh. “We have installed 50,000 meters so far.”

But for families like Dina Ahmad, this won’t make a difference either way. “I will break the smart counter if they force us to use it. We’ll live in caves instead,” she says. “The power company should help us instead of finding ways to overwhelm us.”

The Palestinian factions in Gaza have often intervened on behalf of citizens in need. This time they held a meeting with the power company in Gaza and issued a press release after the meeting. The factions stated that the power crisis requires the efforts of all parties to end it. They also called on Egypt to support Gaza, which used to supply Gaza with power before 2018.

The factions’ statement also affirmed that people’s needs must be put above political considerations and urged the power company in Gaza to consider people’s economic conditions, especially poor families, by exempting them from using smart meters.

Finally, the statement held the Israeli occupation directly responsible for the Gaza power crisis.

Weeks after the social media mesages and the factions’ meeting, people’s circumstances have hardly changed, and the idea of using a fan during the day remains a pipe dream.

“When such simple things need a miracle to happen, we see how different we are from the rest of the world,” Dina told Mondoweiss, pointing to her sons, overwhelmed by the heat. “The Israeli siege cut us off from the world, turning our basic needs like food and electricity into wishes.”

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