Imagine your life without electricity. What would your social life look like? What would your diet taste like? What would you do without your iPhone? How long could you stand the heat without an AC? Would your favorite treadmill still work? How would you clean your clothes? And what about access to water, without any functioning pumps?
This is the reality in the Gaza Strip, where there is only power for three odd hours each day, six at best. And the schedule is so random that homemakers do laundry at 2 AM, fill their water tanks at midnight, power up their electronic devices at noon, and cry all night from the mosquito bites that won’t leave them alone.
While I certainly take electricity for granted, many patients in Gaza’s hospitals know better as their own survival is based on it. Imagine a newborn baby needing an incubator, only to be told that there is a waiting list. This is the reality of the decade-long siege on Gaza. Those babies who can’t find an incubator or proper care have inherited suffering from their parents and grandparents, who are refugees.
The World Health Organization reports that half of those who seek vital medical treatment have been denied permission to exit Gaza. Often, permits are delayed. These unnecessary delays are most painful for children. Then there is the story of the 47-year-old woman who was denied permit to seek medical attention only to pass away days later.
Three devastating wars impede all aspects of life inside the narrow Mediterranean enclave. But beyond all the destroyed lives and buildings, other conditions contribute to why the UN calls Gaza “uninhabitable.” Gaza faces water shortage, sewage overflow, lack of power and a now a polluted beach that up until recently was the only recreation bestowed on the Palestinians inside the territory.
Gaza in Tragic Numbers
Here are some dark numbers for you: nearly 40 percent of Gaza’s residents live below the poverty line and more than 42 percent are unemployed. The unemployment rate among the youth is 60 percent—the highest in the world.
Scared yet? 97 percent of water in Gaza is not suitable for human consumption. If that does not worry you, how about the fact that as of this year, 74 percent of homes destroyed in the 2014 war have not been rebuilt and are still in ruins.
How about the closure of the crossings? The Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border remains sealed. Right now, even the Israeli authorities are publicly advocating for the opening of the southern borders. According to the United Nations, during 2016 the crossing was partially opened for only 44 days. In 2015, the crossing was only open for 21 days. So far this year, the crossing has been sealed for four months and counting.
The crossing is a vital issue for Palestinians in Gaza because it’s the only way they can get out to reunite with families, go to school, go to their jobs and get medical attention. It’s a big issue for the economy because if the borders are open, they help stimulate the local economy in more ways than I can count. When the borders are open, expats come in to visit families, shop, dine, give families cash, buy property and bring in money that stays in Gaza. But since the borders are sealed, no one even thinks about it.
Gaza Electricity Crisis Has Far-Reaching Effects
The local government cracked down on eateries that do not meet the food safety code, and in one day it closed 20 shawarma stands. In Rafah for example, the local government visited 20 restaurants and eight were shut down for violation. All closures are related to the electricity crisis: without power, food cannot be stored in refrigerators. So the electricity problem has had spillover effects on grocery stores selling cheeses, yogurts, and other perishables.
On top of that, a lack of fuel exacerbates the problem for many grocery store owners. One frustrated owner vented, "we don’t have electricity and fuel is expensive, but I can’t charge people more. I am considering a career change that does not rely on electricity."
And when solutions are found, they cause problems, too. An ice cream parlor has to run its generator to keep the ice in ice cream. But the parlor faces complaints from neighbors due to the noise its generators make.
Aside from food, pharmacies in Gaza can no longer stock medications that need to be refrigerated and if they do, it’s like playing Russian roulette.
And as for recreation, the beach has been ruined by pollution and sewage—much of which is dumped into the sea because the processing plants have no power. Recently a five-year-old boy passed away from a brain infection linked to swimming in the polluted seawater. Those who are lucky to have extra money can try the pool instead, but even that is a lost cause because pool filters can’t work without power. Now a pool is nothing more than a bacterial soup.
Doctors are protesting the lack of electricity and medicine allowed into Gaza. Even with innovative solutions like solar panels, there are limits because Israel has to approve solar panels upon entry to Gaza. One promising initiative just took place in a poor neighborhood in Rafah, where 55 homes were just connected to solar panels donated by the Chinese embassy in Palestine. Families are grateful for their children being able to do their school work in the light thanks to this help. But unfortunately, many appliances cannot be powered up with the solar panels—larger appliances like heaters, washing machines, and air conditioners.
High-rise buildings in Gaza are now unpopular because the lack of power makes getting to these apartments a daunting task. Since lack of power means elevators are out of service, many elderly people and families with kids are selling their apartments at a steep discount. Despite the discount, people are not buying them.
Fifty-five percent of Palestinians in Gaza live in extreme poverty. Three wars in five years is a lot to take. For example, four million tons of cement was needed to rebuild war-destroyed buildings, but only 33 percent of what's needed has made into Gaza.
But there are some encouraging signs. This week and for the first time in 10 years, the Israeli authorities have allowed clothes made in Gaza to be exported directly. Three thousand five hundred items of clothing were shipped from Gaza to be sold inside Israel. This helps not only in creating jobs but also in giving families hope. The textile industry used to have more than 30,000 workers in 2006 but at the moment only 5,000 of those workers are partially employed.
Mourning in Gaza
Over the weekend, I lost a very dear uncle to me who was only 52 years of age. A few months prior, Uncle Awad had surgery to help improve his breathing. The surgery did not go well and he was on a waiting list to go to the West Bank for medical attention. But fate had it that his permit (which was delayed for days) came in on the same night he passed away.
Uncle Awad used to work in construction in Israel in the 1990s, and he took pride in the many homes he helped build as a plasterer. He had been unemployed for years, though, since workers from Gaza are no longer allowed to work there. The heartbreaking revelation came when I called his sons to give my condolences. They said now he is at rest. In Gaza, it seems that we are all walking with a suspended death sentence.