Gaza: Grief after house fire kills entire family in besieged enclave

Funeral procession for those killed during the house fire in Gaza (Mohammed al-Hajjar - MEE)

Maha Hussaini

Middle East Eye  /  November 19, 2022

Twenty-one people died after a fire broke out during a party, with rescue teams criticized for a slow response.

Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip on Friday mourned the deaths of 21 people who died after a fire broke out in a residential building in the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp.

Following Friday prayers, hundreds of Palestinians carried the victims’ bodies wrapped in the Palestinian flag to the Beit Lahia cemetery in the north of Gaza.

The Abu Rayya family was having a party in a flat on the third floor of the three-story building when the fire engulfed the house on Thursday evening.

By the time the rescue crews managed to enter the building, all family members, including at least eight children and four women, had already died.

Muhammed Abu Rayya, the Abu Rayya family chief, told Middle East Eye that the family was celebrating the return of Maher Abu Rayya, the former director of the office of the undersecretary of the Gaza Ministry of Labor, who had travelled to Egypt for the first time.

“Maher had just returned to Gaza around a week ago, after having spent two weeks in Egypt to attend a conference,” he said.

“It was Maher’s first time ever to travel outside of Gaza. When he came back, his family threw him a party, and it coincided with the birthday of his brother Nader.”

Abu Rayya said the family still did not have detailed information about the causes of the fire, and they are waiting for the police investigation to be completed.

“It appears that the cooking gas tanks in the kitchen and the sponge mattresses, as well as the wooden furniture in the living room, helped fuel the blaze,” he said.

“There is no one who can tell us what truly happened because no one left the house alive.”

Delayed rescue

Video footage of the incident recorded and circulated online by neighbours showed a child standing at a window, apparently failing to escape the fire, which engulfed the entire house, due to the window guards.

Neighbours and witnesses gathered outside the building as Civil Defence crews and medics were attempting to evacuate the residents, but none of them could reach the house due to the intensity of the fire.

Following the incident, Saja Abu Rayya, a member of the grieving family, said in a tweet: “My cousin’s voice saying ‘Help us people’ is repeating in my mind.”

Bahaa Abu Rayya, one of the family’s relatives, told MEE that the Civil Defence crews arrived at the scene after 40 minutes, failing to immediately control the fast-moving fire.

“The family members who were inside the house as well as neighbours and witnesses were constantly calling the Civil Defence, but the crews came late as they were dealing with another incident in Rafah [in the southern Gaza Strip],” Bahaa told MEE as he stood in a funeral receiving line to welcome guests and receive condolences for the family’s loss.

“Nader’s wife was standing at the window, holding her child in one hand and her mobile in the other, shouting and calling for people to help them, before she died and her mobile fell off on the ground. The police took the mobile.”

During emergencies and military attacks, Gaza Civil Defence crews face difficulty responding to rescue calls due to a lack of supplies and rescue equipment.

The General Directorate of Civil Defence in Gaza regularly calls for pressure to be exerted on Israel to allow the entry of safety equipment into the blockaded enclave.

Since the imposition of the blockade in 2007, Israel has enforced a permit regime that restricts the movement of people and goods, including medical and rescue equipment, to and from the Gaza Strip.

Numerous similar house fires have been caused by candles, petrol or gas used for lighting and heating since the beginning of the long-running power crisis in Gaza.

“If the rescue crews arrived earlier, they may have managed to evacuate some of the family members. But unfortunately, by the time they arrived, most of them had already burned to death,” said Bahaa.

Disaster investigation

Initial reports by the Gaza Ministry of Interior indicated that the fire was driven by the large quantities of fuel stored in the building. Arriving at the scene, the ministry’s spokesperson announced that they would form a committee to investigate the causes of the fire.

“Through preliminary investigations, it was found that there was a stockpile of benzene stored inside the house, which helped cause a huge fire and a large number of victims,” Iyad al-Bozom, spokesman for the Gaza Ministry of Interior said.

The reason why the family had stored large amounts of fuel inside the house is not yet clear, but it is common among Gaza households to store petrol and diesel for their power generators, which they rely on to make up for lengthy power cuts.

Receiving less than eight hours of electricity a day, the majority of the blockaded Gaza’s residents use alternative energy sources, especially during winter seasons.

“To be honest with you, I always imagine the same scenario happening in my home or in one of my relative’s houses. The idea of having a fire erupt in our homes haunts us all, especially with what we see and hear every day,” Gaza resident Hala Mozeni, who offered condolences to the family, told MEE.

“With around eight hours of electricity a day, we are obliged to find alternatives and rely on other sources.”

The power crisis in Gaza largely dates to 2006, when Israeli forces bombed the six main transformers at the only power plant.

Although it was later partially repaired, the power plant now generates only 60-80MW out of 500MW needed to provide sufficient power to Gaza’s two million residents.

“At home, we use a big power generator that provides power for my house and the house of my in-laws on the ground floor,” said Mozeni, a mother of three.

“The generator works on petrol, and we do have small amounts of it in the storage room. We know it is dangerous, and although we are very cautious about it, I am still terrified by the idea that what happened to dozens of families might somehow happen to us.”

Maha Hussaini is an award-winning journalist and human rights activist based in Gaza