With frequent power cuts, winters in Gaza can be deadly

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  February 9, 2023

During Gaza’s cold winter months, the absence of sufficient electricity drives families desperate for warmth to use hazardous fuel sources to heat their homes. The results can often be deadly.

It is 11:00 p.m. on a cold and dry evening east of Gaza City. The inside of Hani Saleh’s home smells of soot — the remains of an entire night’s burning of wood and coal in the same room to keep warm. The house is still cold.

The resulting moisture leaves large splotches on the white paint of the walls. When it dries out, the paint peels off. The family of eight crams into a single living room, barely visible to one another in the dim flickering lights. It’s not their bedtime, but the 20-amp battery that supplies their home with power has all but died after working for 10 hours without interruption. 

Suddenly, the power comes back on, and everyone in the family jumps up at once, each of them scrambling to go about the tasks they had laid before them in the short power window they’ve been given. Shahd, still in high school, rushes to her desk in the next room, trying to fight off her fatigue.

“It’s too late to focus, especially when it’s so cold. I should’ve been sleeping by now,” Shahd says. This is a critical year for her, as her exam grades will determine what major she will be allowed to take in college.

Today, the power schedule was slated to return electricity to their area by 10:00 p.m. Predictably, however, the power often comes later, and then cuts off at 6 a.m. 

When the family has power, they recharge the batteries of their different appliances to use them throughout the day. They will have power again in the late afternoon, sometime between 3 and 5 p.m. They can maybe charge their things again in that brief window before the electricity cuts off again until 10 pm, and so on.

Day after day, people in Gaza have been forced to adapt to this power schedule for the last 15 years, each year witnessing the further shrinking of the power window.

Shahd spends half her waking hours in the dark. To say that it has had a negative impact on her future is an understatement. For Shahd, studying for a full day is unachievable. 

What’s worse is the expectation that this should be considered normal, as something to cope with. 

But light isn’t the only thing the family needs to worry about during a power cut. Domestic chores are vastly curtailed, as you are forced into a tiny window to use the electric oven, do the laundry, iron clothes, or even watch TV. This restriction hits the mother of the house the hardest.

When the power comes back on, everyone rushes to the power sockets to charge their phones — a full phone battery is not to be taken for granted.

“We already live in the worst conditions on earth, and we tell ourselves to find the strength to tell ourselves that tomorrow will be better,” the Shahd says. 

For Shahd, daytime isn’t any better than her nighttime challenges. When she returns home from school, she barely has enough time to eat lunch before the power shuts off, let alone study. “By 5 p.m., the power is already off, and we sometimes have to wait until midnight for it to come back on. It’s exhausting. The day is over by that point.” 

The rise of the Gaza power crisis

The Gaza Strip gets only 200 megawatts per day, a far cry from the 600 megawatts that are required to satisfy the power needs of the population of 2,375,259. But even that insufficient amount is rationed. The daily power supply is currently enough to power half of Gaza, hence the need to ration power distribution to different areas. That daily amount continues to shrink, to the point that Gaza’s sole power plant has declared a state of “permanent shortage.” 

“The best scenario is having 200 megawatts, which can light almost half of Gaza, but I need to schedule it to make it possible to reach everyone’s home,” Mohammed Thabet, the Gaza power plant’s representative, told Mondoweiss. “People get 8 hours on and 8 hours off during the day. Sometimes in extremely cold or hot weather, we can only supply people 4-6 hours, because of the increased use of electrical appliances.”

The Gaza power crisis started in 2006, when Israeli warplanes bombed the electricity conversion station next to the electrical power plant. Six turbines were destroyed, leaving Gaza with only four. Now only three are working, each of them supplying 20-30 megawatts. 

Israeli electrical lines also supply Gaza with 120 megawatts, but Israel routinely cuts power to these lines as well, especially as a punitive measure of collective punishment during one of its wars on the besieged coastal Strip. 

These are Gaza’s only two power sources. Egypt used to supply Gaza with 150 megawatts, but this was discontinued in 2018. 

From a technical standpoint, Thabet finds no problem in establishing and developing an electric grid, and he has no doubt that funding it is manageable. However, he believes that there’s a political veto denying the people of Gaza electricity around the clock. 

“The political situation impacts the power sector,” he said. “The persistence of the Israeli targeting of the infrastructure, including the power networks and supplies, as well as the Israeli denial of the entrance of maintenance equipment like electrical and electronic boards and copper materials, are all due to the Israeli siege,” he explains. Israel prevents these materials from coming in, meaning that the company could not rebuild the destroyed power plants.

As the economic circumstances continue to deteriorate, people cannot pay their electric bills, especially in refugee camps. Non-payment has become so widespread that the electricity company grants an “honor certification” to people who continue to pay their bills on time. 

“The people’s debts to the company have reached one billion dollars,” Thabet told Mondoweiss.

When power cuts turn deadly

In the cold winter months, power cuts in the Gaza Strip push people to find creative solutions to their power needs.

Some alternative power options are straightforward. Diesel or gasoline-fuelled generators, usually belonging to wealthy businessmen, can often supply power to multiple families by extending cables to their homes.

But with 53% of Gaza’s population living below the poverty line, most people can’t afford this private service. Instead, they use batteries from cars, trucks, and motorcycles, linking them with electrodes to LED lights. 

Khitam Nasser, 34, is a mother of 3 children. She is a nurse in a private medical clinic. Since both she and her husband work, they have what is considered a middle-class economic income, enough to furnish them with the generator option. The family gets a cable from the closest general generator in the Al-Zayton neighborhood, which works in tandem with the power cut schedule. 

“Even with this power solution, we can’t get electricity all day,” Khitam told Mondoweiss

While these generators are useful, they do not supply enough electricity for powering electric devices — it’s only enough for low electrical loads, like lighting, using a fan, or turning on the TV. Using a heater or powering the refrigerator is out of the question.

“I’m always afraid of passing an infection to my family, as I work in an infectious environment,” Khitam said. “When I get home, all I need is a good cleaning using hot water, but the reality is that even this small thing isn’t available. It all depends on whether we have electricity or not.” 

Using these higher electrical loads is therefore reserved during the short power window provided by Gaza’s sole power plant. People end up scheduling their time around these windows, delaying countless simple chores until they can execute them barely in the nick of time. 

But the constant attempt to find alternative fuel sources can often turn deadly. The absence of safe sources of heating push families desperate for warmth to use alternative and hazardous fuel sources to generate heat. Often this has resulted in fatal accidents. Over the past 16 years of Israel’s blockade, the power crisis caused the death of over 30 children who died in fires started through the use of alternative energy sources, such as candles and gasoline.

This was exemplified in a devastating way in November of last year during the tragedy of the Abu Rayya family. An extended family of 21 people, nearly all members of the Abu Rayya family died in a horrific fire caused by gasoline used for the family’s generator. They all died during a celebration of the return of one of its family members from abroad after completing their PhD. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Mondoweiss interviewed survivors of the fire, as well as local government officials. All of them laid ultimate blame at the feet of the then 15-year Israeli blockade.

Khitam reaches the same conclusion when reflecting on the root cause of the power crisis. “Just because everyone in Gaza has to endure this situation doesn’t mean we have to accept to continue living like this,” she told Mondoweiss. “We have to hold on as part of our struggle against our occupier.” 

“Because the occupation is the main cause of all our disasters as Palestinians,” she said.

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union