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Wasting away in the Gaza Strip

Lena Odgaard and Lazar Simeonov

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Closure of 'lifeline' tunnels means fuel shortages, power cuts, and sewage on the streets.

November 20, 2013

Al-Sabra, Gaza Strip - Sami Haddad waded through ankle-deep sewage after a lack of electricity caused pumps at a wastewater treatment plant to break down. Around him there was a sense of panic with men shouting at each other and children crying.

The streets were dark and people edged along the walls covering their noses with one hand and holding their mobile phones in the other, using them as torch lights to find a dry spot to step.

"We're covered in filth from the sewage. The children are scared and we do not know what to do," Haddad told Al Jazeera.

"We have asked the government to do something, but they say there is no more fuel. We ask for help from anywhere. If the pumps don't start again, the sewage seeps into people's homes and their lives are in danger."

At the doorstep of one building, sandbags kept the sewage out. Inside the ground floor apartment children worked on their homework by the light of a single bulb. Their grandmother, Ibresam al-Banna, 55, expressed frustration with the situation.

"The lack of electricity affects all parts of everyday life," she told Al Jazeera. "The worst is the problem of the sewage when the water comes up in the bathroom and kitchen. You wake up in the middle of the night to the smell of sewage. It's dark and you see your children suffering; they cannot breathe or have a fever and you don't know why."

Al-Banna's husband is an electrician and has installed a primitive battery to power the household - enough to light four small lamps in the apartment that houses more than 20 people, most of them children aged one year and up.

But the battery only lasts for a few hours and cannot keep the freezer or refrigerator running. Food prices have increased significantly and the family struggles to make ends meet.

"It is difficult and expensive to buy fresh meat and vegetables so we do it only once a week. But it goes bad after a few days," al-Banna explained. She said they borrow money but since everyone is affected by the electricity crisis, few have extra to spare.

Closing the tunnels

Since November 1, Gaza's power plant has been shut down because of a lack of fuel. People have had to live with about six hours of power, followed by 12 hours without. When electricity comes on in the middle of the night, women get up to do the housework and children to study.

The buzzing sound of generators is constant in the areas where people can afford to fuel them, at a cost of about $30 an hour. Only a selected few have UPS batteries, others make do with candles.

The current crisis is a consequence of Egypt's ongoing crackdown on the Gaza-Egypt underground tunnels, which has been the umbilical cord for Gazans since the Israeli-imposed blockade in 2007.

In September, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied territories estimated only 10 tunnels were operating, down from about 300 before June this year.

This has significantly reduced the amount of fuel coming into Gaza. According to a recent report by OCHA, 10,000-20,000 litres of fuel entered Gaza in one week in November, compared to 1 million litres a day six months ago. It warned that basic functions such as providing water, sanitation and health services were increasingly difficult.

"The operation of 291 water and sewage facilities have been severely affected, and access to running water has declined across the Gaza Strip," the OCHA said.

Food, medicine, computers, cars, livestock and construction materials used to be smuggled through the tunnels, serving a vital role for Gaza's economy. A recent report by the EuroMid Observer for Human Rights estimates economic losses caused by the closure of the tunnels totalled $460m over the past two months.

Adding to the crisis, Israel has halted almost all construction material from entering through its crossing following the discovery of a tunnel between Gaza and Israel in October. This has forced the UN Relief and Works Agency to suspend 19 of its 20 construction projects, temporarily laying off tens of thousands of workers. As the unemployment rate rises, most Gazans find it impossible to buy the scarce goods they need.

Blaming Hamas

Al-Banna blames the municipality for installing a bad pump, Israel for the siege, but mainly the Hamas-led government for not solving the crisis.

Raw sewage in Gaza has been escaping onto the streets

"They are supposed to be helping the people but all they seek is more power and more money for themselves," she said. "I have sons and they have wives and kids but cannot feed them. They used to work in construction but now there is nothing they can do. That's the fault of the government - it should provide job opportunities and services."

Speaking to Al Jazeera, a senior Hamas official, Ahmed Yousef, said the government was doing its best to ease the burden and restrictions against Palestinians, but he made it clear the main problem was Israel's occupation.

"It is not fair to just accuse Hamas of everything that is happening here, because everyone is paying the price," he said, adding the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) also shared blame.

After the tunnels were destroyed, Hamas became dependent on buying Israeli fuel from the PA. Hamas accused the Palestinian Authority of adding too much tax, making the fuel unaffordable.

Mustafa Ibrahim, from the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza, told Al Jazeera he had warned Hamas not to rely too much on the tunnels, because it removed the responsibility of Israel as an occupying power to ensure all humanitarian needs.

Ibrahim said he fears mounting pressure on the government will result in Hamas seeking to direct Gazan animosity towards Israel by provoking an escalation in violence.

"It's a hard choice for Hamas but if this crisis continues, the only solution they will have is to start a violent crisis in order to solve this one," Ibrahim said.

Meanwhile, the people of Gaza try to continue their everyday lives. At the Al Rayyes Girls High School, IT teacher Lina Al-Jarousha showed Al Jazeera the school's computer room and said it had been closed for a week.

"We have a lab full of equipment, but we are unable to use it. For example today, the electricity is cut from six in the morning to six at night, which means that the day is lost," she said.

In the classroom next door, 15-year-old Jihan Ahel said she worried what effect the situation in Gaza would have on her health and education.

"Yesterday I was studying for a test by the light of a candle, and it affected my eyes. All day today my eyes were tearing. I hope they will find a solution - if it continues, it will surely affect my grades."



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:: Article nr. 102745 sent on 22-nov-2013 19:10 ECT

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