Tareq S. Hajjaj
Mondoweiss / February 28, 2023
I spent a day with a family in Jabaliya refugee camp at the height of Gaza’s cold winter months. This is how they survive without electricity.
It’s an ice-cold morning in Gaza. The weather is the coldest it’s been all year. The family of 56-year-old Ibrahim Bal’awi struggles to find enough sources of heating for their small house of 90 square meters and 14 family members.
Having a heater inside their home does not make it any better, because the family spends the day with less than 3 hours of electricity — which means the Bal’awi family, like everyone else in Gaza, has to substitute conventional heating methods with more hazardous ones, like gas heaters inside bedrooms, or lighting wood on fire in the middle of a living room, or even storing unsafe amounts of gasoline in their homes for powering generators (for those who can afford to buy a generator — most people can’t). Often this has resulted in fatal accidents.
At 7 a.m., the family house has no light but for the faint rays coming in from the window on an overcast winter morning. There is little warmth left in the home, as children leave their beds and prepare for school. Hala, 11, keeps going back to her bed, trying to eke out a few more seconds of warmth from her morning routine.
Her mother Riham promises her to run the gas heater if she rises from bed and washes her face. The trick works, and the girl finally leaves the warmth of her mattress.
There is no breakfast table for the family, only cold sandwiches for the children to take with them to school. The mother and grandparents have their morning coffee, rubbing their palms together after holding the hot cups long enough to leave some residual heat on their fingers.
For today, the power schedule is straightforward enough — electricity is supposed to be delivered between the hours of 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. It is already 8 a.m., however, and the house remains without power. Such delays are not uncommon in Gaza.
The grandmother, 53-year-old Safia al-Bal’awi, predicts that the power will come back by 10 a.m. today. She turns to her husband, Ibrahim, for confirmation. “When it doesn’t come at 7, that means it will probably come on at 10, right?”
Her husband can’t say for certain. “Maybe. We might not have power for the whole day because of the weather,” he said, shrugging.
Safia’s daughter, Riham, takes her kids to school. When she comes back, she tells everyone still at home that she had to wear 5 layers of pants, and still felt cold in the stump of what remained of her leg — Riham suffers from an illness that has caused several heart attacks, which eventually forced her to amputate her foot. She struggles to keep her stump warm, and sometimes it gets so cold that she starts stomping her one remaining heel on the ground from the pain.
It’s almost 10 a.m. now, and Safia is ready to do the family’s laundry. She has already loaded the washing machine with clothes and detergent, dial primed at the right setting. They’re still waiting for the electricity to come back on. At some point she gives up on waiting and goes about other tasks.
By 10:35, the power is finally on. Safia hurries back to the washing machine to turn it on. She also switches on the heater.
The house comes alive as the lights illuminate the previously dim room. The remaining family members feel invigorated all over again. “Everything’s fine now,” Safia says. “Regardless of our circumstances, when the power is on, everything seems more manageable, easier. It feels like life is good again.”
Life remains good for less than half an hour as the power cuts abruptly by 11 a.m. Ten minutes later, it comes back on again, and stays on for the rest of the hour until noon. That’s when it goes out and doesn’t come back until much later.
The afternoon routine
Ibrahim, a retired civil sector employee, gets bored sitting at home all day. He goes to pick up his youngest grandchild from school in the afternoon as the family prepares lunch. It is rainy, and that means one thing in Gaza – fattet adas, a quintessential winter meal of bread soaked in a thick lentil soup.
Safia, her daughter Riham, and her daughter-in-law, Fatima, are together in the kitchen, chatting away as they prepare lunch during a brief moment of privacy as everyone else is out of the house.
Then the kids come home and the house is filled with energy. They put their bags to the side and wait patiently while their mother and grandmother prepare lunch. By now, their grandfather is also back, youngest grandchild in tow, and they all gather and sit down on cushions on the floor.
They try to finish their homework before the evening, when they know it will be too dark and too cold to study.
“They also find it warmer here, because of the gas fire we have going,” Safia points out. “It makes them warmer in this cold.”
Lunch is ready, and the family gathers around. The main dish is served in a large platter at the center, which everyone eats from. It’s accompanied by a side of pickled turnips stained pink from beetroot, olives, sliced radishes, and fresh green arugula. They gather around the food in a circle on the floor, enjoying their lunch.
After the meal, the children go to their rooms to continue their homework. Light has become sparse by now, but they open their books all the same. The cold means that they prefer to do their homework in bed, under their covers. They call their mother to turn the gas heater on inside the room for a short time. An exceedingly dangerous way of heating up an enclosed space, the family knows that using the gas heater requires adult supervision.
Ibrahim turns it on in the children’s room while Riham sits beside it. They can only keep it on for a short time while the room is closed, not wanting to burn all the oxygen in the tiny space. Opening the windows for air would also defeat the purpose. Every year or so, someone in Gaza will occasionally die of asphyxiation in the cold winter months, usually from falling asleep in closed rooms with the gas heater still on.
“Sometimes when I am outside the room, I start imagining that I forgot to turn it off, or that the kids turned it on behind my back,” said Riham. “So I find myself running to the room in a panic, just to check and make sure it’s not on. It’s really scary to use gas inside a bedroom, but what other choice do we have? This is the best option.” By “best option,” she means that other, less “clean” combustible materials for producing heat, like wood or charcoal, would be even more hazardous.
The ‘stone age’ hours
Darkness starts to set in by 4 p.m. Ibrahim makes a trip to the roof of the house before it gets even darker, collecting firewood, putting it in a metal brazier, and lighting it on fire. The children follow him onto the roof, gathering around the fire. It’s windy, but they enjoy the fire.
“We usually spend an hour next to the fire,” Ibrahim says. “The kids get warmed up, and afterwards they can go to bed early and stay warm that way.”
At this point in the evening, he’s long since ceased talking about the electricity or predicting when it is due to come back on. “We’ve almost forgotten about how a full day of electricity looks like,” he says. “It’s not a possibility here, so it’s better if I stop waiting for it. I might as well consider myself living in the stone age.”
Depending on the power schedule in Ibrahim’s area, power is supposed to be restored by midnight.
Downstairs, the women of the house gather in the living area and spend their time chatting over tea.
“If I take this fire down for the family, they will suffocate from the smoke,” says Ibrahim. “And they can’t come up here and leave the home empty.”
As the fire dies down and turns into ash, the darkness settles around them. They don’t have enough firewood to last them until the power comes back on, when they can turn on the heater.
The children have given up by now. It’s still several hours until midnight, and they might as well turn in early.
The home is dark, and the alternative means of lighting used by the family are failing, not having had enough electricity to charge them during the previous power window.
There isn’t any dinner meal. The children have sandwiches stuffed with olive oil mixed with dukka, a Gaza condiment of finely ground wheat and spices. They eat in the dark before they retreat to their bedrooms and cover themselves with heavy blankets, their day over by 7 p.m.
Internet and LED bulbs running on car batteries
Due to the long-term power crisis in Gaza, people invent new ways of producing light in their homes. Few of these methods are safe, and most of them need electricity to charge them. When the power window is as short as it was today, that’s not nearly enough electricity to charge them, rendering them useless.
Still, on days when the power window is long enough, a fully charged car battery can work wonders. That’s what many people in Gaza use to illuminate their homes during the “stone age” hours of the night. People hook car batteries directly to the house’s electricity, so that when the power is on, the electricity charges the battery. Fully charged, it can supply 3-4 hours’ worth of internet and light — powering the internet router and a handful of LED bulbs requiring low voltage to produce light throughout the house.
The battery has run out of juice by now. “Nothing is as good as having power, but when there’s an outage, we make use of these energy alternatives,” said Safia. “At least when absolutely necessary, such as when someone is going to the bathroom to avoid falling down in the dark. When they come back from the bathroom, we switch it off again, and we’re plunged back into darkness.”
Safia believes that people in Gaza have learned to get by with the bare minimum requirements for a normal life. The trouble is that sometimes even the minimum is asking too much. “We have less than the minimum,” she said. “We have nothing.”
Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union