you know what i think? “democracy” is worse than nazism

Disaster in Gaza’s darkness
Ola Mousa, Electronic Intifada, Sep 18 2020

All three of Omar Huzeen’s children were killed in a fire on Sep 1.
Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Every morning for the past two weeks, Omar Huzeen has sat down outside what remains of his home. He thinks constantly about the fire that killed all three of his children. The three boys had spent Sep 1 with their grandfather. When they returned to their parents that evening, the family had dinner, after which 2-year-old Muhammad asked for a drink of milk. There was no milk at home, so Omar went searching for some. Omar said:

I put a candle beside the window to light the room and went to see my mother. But she didn’t have milk at her home and most of the supermarkets were closed due to the lockdown. I finally managed to buy some milk and came home. By the time I returned, our house was on fire.

Muhammad and his brothers Yusif and Mahmoud, aged 5 and 4 respectively, were trapped in the blaze. Their mother, Khuloud, had been at home when the fire began. Although she escaped from the house, she was unable to enter her sons’ bedroom. When Omar returned, he tried to smash the windows and break down the door on the asbestos-roofed house in an attempt to rescue his children. His neighbors called the civil defense service. With Gaza under a curfew because of a COVID-19 outbreak, it took 45 minutes before the firefighters arrived. That was too late. When the three boys were brought to al-Aqsa hospital in central Gaza, they were declared dead. It is believed the fire was started by the candle which Omar had lit.

Nobody in Nuseirat refugee camp, where the Huzeen family lives, views the fire as an isolated tragedy. It took place at a time when Israel had tightened its siege of Gaza. The candle had to be lit as the only alternative was darkness. Nuseirat, like other parts of Gaza, had only a few hours of electricity per day in early September. Israel had caused severe power outages by banning fuel deliveries to Gaza’s sole power station in August. The ban was presented as a response to incendiary balloons that some Palestinians were flying toward southern Israel. Once again, Israel had decided to violate international law by subjecting everyone in Gaza to collective punishment.

Omar Huzeen bought the candle that probably started the fire on the morning of Sep 1. He needed candles as the batteries on the LED lights in his home kept on being depleted. Without a regular supply of electricity, it was impossible to recharge the batteries sufficiently often. Omar was trying to provide for his family with very meager resources. He had previously found work as a farm laborer and on building sites. Yet he had been unemployed for the previous three months. Omar said:

Imagine that children all over the world grow up playing with toys and eating delicious food. My children grew up with electricity blackouts. Yusif thought that power cuts occurred in every country. The children didn’t realize that they were born into a situation where they were deprived of basic rights.

The boys’ mother, Khuloud, cannot fathom what has happened to her family. She recalled that Yusif was looking forward to starting school. Khuloud said:

His happiness didn’t last long. The schools here have been closed since the coronavirus outbreak. And now Yusif and his two brothers have burned to death.

Mahmoud, the children’s grandfather, remarked:

Nuseirat’s residents were shocked that lighting a candle could lead to death. All countries around the world are developing solar and nuclear energy. Yet we are struggling to have any electricity.

It was not the first deadly fire in Nuseirat this year. In March, a fire engulfed the neighborhood’s market. A total of 22 people lost their lives as a result. It took place, too, against a backdrop of fuel shortages. The shortages are widely considered to have been a contributory factor. The disaster which has afflicted the Huzeen family is eerily reminiscent of an Apr 2012 fire that broke out in Deir al-Balah, just a few kilometers from Nuseirat. That fire was similarly attributed to a candle which had been lit because of a power outage. The fire also caused the deaths of three young siblings. The Gaza-based human rights group Al Mezan has documented a pattern of such incidents. It has calculated that 35 Palestinians, including 28 children, have died under comparable circumstances since 2010. Al Mezan’s director, Issam Younis, pointed out that power outages have been a regular consequence of Israel’s siege on Gaza. Families in dire poverty are at particular risk when they try to light their homes. Younis said:

If the electricity crisis continues, the problems will get worse, and the number of victims will rise.

How Israel lit match for deadly fire
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh, Electronic Intifada, Sep 15 2020

The Nuseirat market fire ultimately cost 22 people their lives.
Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

The Israeli siege of Gaza affects us in myriad ways. It is not just about being starved of fuel and electricity, as we have been recently. Of course, that is bad enough. The vulnerable are even more vulnerable, nights are dark, work is almost impossible to do, if you are lucky enough to have any, and there is no relief from sweltering summers. But Israel’s blockade is all encompassing. It affects every aspect of our lives here, from our ability to travel and trade, to career prospects, to whether or not we will eat tomorrow. And it has knock-on effects. Things happen that normally wouldn’t happen. Things that shouldn’t happen.

In March, a fire broke out in Nuseirat refugee camp that ultimately would take the lives of 22 people. The fire started in a bakery. It was the result of poor judgement from many local parties. But while the authorities put the blame on those parties, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the match that really lit the fire was struck in 2006, when Israel decided that it would punish Palestinians for electing Hamas in parliamentary elections. Israel had evacuated its illegal settlements in Gaza in 2005, but kept Palestinians in Gaza under tight control, exercising dominion over air, land and sea. When in 2007, Hamas ousted Fatah forces unwilling to abide by the parliamentary election result, Israel simply locked the door. The resulting blockade and hardships suffered as a result in Gaza have been well documented. The warning from the UN that the siege would render Gaza uninhabitable by this year has also received wide coverage. We are still here, and we are still surviving. We survive Israel’s bombs, we survive the COVID-19 pandemic. We survive the absence of basic human needs. But survive is all we do, and then only just. And sometimes, like in March, death will have us, whatever we do.

In March, Gaza was suffering a severe gas shortage after more than a month in which less gas than usual was imported into Gaza from Egypt and Israel. Even before these shortages occurred, the amount of gas Gaza imports only covers about half the needs of the area, according to Nour al-Khozandar of Gaza’s petroleum and gas station owners’ association. The amount of gas available at any given time can vary. Thus, Gaza’s merchants and traders are now primed to expect the unexpected. Osama al-Banna, 50, the owner of a bakery in the middle of the Nuseirat camp’s market, decided to buy extra gas to ensure the continued operation of his shop in view of the gas shortage in March. He stored it, all 2 tons, in an empty plot of land behind the bakery. The bakery was one of the main bakeries in the Nuseirat market. It employed 30 people, most of them with families to support. Osama al-Banna used cooking gas to fuel generators to power the bakery because it couldn’t depend on Gaza’s scant and unreliable electricity supply, also a result of the Israeli siege. His precaution at first paid off. Out of some 70 bakeries across Gaza, 30 had to close temporarily, according to Abdel Nasser al-Ajrami, who heads a bakeries’ association, because of the gas shortage. But Osama’s bakery continued to work throughout that period. Then, on Mar 5, the gas canisters exploded. Samed al-Rai, 30, was selling children’s clothes from a wooden cart he had parked near the bakery. He said:

When we heard the explosion, we thought it was an Israeli bombardment. People started running here and there. Then the fire began spreading from the back of the bakery.

After three minutes, another stronger explosion occurred, and the fire started to spread to nearby stores and other display carts like al-Rai’s. Samed said:

We were surrounded by fire. I froze. I just sat on the floor, shocked, watching children and women running and crying.

Yasser al-Banna works with his brother Osama in the bakery. When the first explosion occurred, he called his brother. Osama was there within a matter of minutes. Yasser, 47, said:

Once Osama arrived, he poured a bucket of water on himself and ran towards the flaming bakery. He wanted to save his workers.

But Osama could neither save himself nor his employees. Five of his colleagues died there and then. Osama, suffering severe burns and smoke inhalation, passed away after four days. An official investigation into the fire announced its results 11 days later. In all, 22 people lost their lives, some immediately and some, like Osama, of injuries sustained during the fire. 49 people were injured. Materially there was damage to 30 shops, 40 display carts and 18 vehicles. Among the casualties were Iman Abu Mahrouq, 26, and her two daughters Liyan and Manal Hussein, 5 and 3 respectively, the youngest victims. The investigating committee laid most of the responsibility on the bakery itself for storing too much gas in one place and doing so unsafely. But there was plenty of blame to go around. Head of the committee, Muhammad al-Nahal said investigators recommended the permanent shutdown of the bakery as well as the gas station that supplied the gas tanks, which investigators found were faulty and from which gas had leaked. In addition, the local municipality and the civil defense department were castigated for not following proper safety procedures and the committee recommended that the heads of both be removed from their positions. However, Yasser al-Banna said there was a more basic and fundamental cause: the blockade. He said:

If we did not suffer from a shortage, my brother would not have thought about storing gas.

It took some four hours to put out the fire, which spread to an area the size of a football stadium. The civil defense department needed the help of private construction companies and their heavy duty vehicles. Raed al-Dahshan of the civil defense department operations in Nuseirat said:

Our staff is well-trained, but what happened in the market was bigger than our modest capabilities can handle.

The fire further intensified when it reached a carpentry workshop near the bakery. There too the owner, Khader al-Rozzy, had stocked up to ride through any shortages of wood and fuel he would encounter. He had stored 18 gas cylinders, which all exploded. Khader said he had followed all safety procedures and had just taken receipt of a batch of wood of different types a few days before the fire. Khader told The Electronic Intifada:

I followed all the safety and security procedures. I kept fire extinguishers in the workshop, there were sprinklers in the ceiling. There was even a well to draw water from in case of fire.

However, none of the precautions helped against a fire that had spread from elsewhere. Khader’s 25 year-old-son, Ibrahim, was working in the shop at the time and was killed. Khader said:

I lost everything.

The blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza means it opens and closes crossings for people and goods at will. It allows only certain products into Gaza, slapping a prohibition on goods it considers of potential “dual use.” “Dual use” theoretically means items that could have military applications. But Israel interprets the phrase to cover everything from fuel through castor oil to X-ray machines. Cranes and other heavy equipment are on the list alongside wooden planks. The approach is punitive. Israel shuts down the supply of goods like fuel, like it did for most of August and some of September, when it wants to hurt Palestinians in Gaza. Thus, while local authorities blamed the merchants, everyone else blames Israel. Simply put, there would have been no need to stock up on gas if there was no closure. Similarly, 24 children who died because their dwellings caught on fire from candles lit during electricity shutdowns between 2010 and 2016 might also still be alive. How many would have been saved had we been allowed to import what we need to fix our sewage system? Sanitize water? Operate a fully functioning health service? Yes, a baker stocked up too much gas in what turned out to be unsafe canisters sold him by a gas station owner who could not replace old ones. But these deaths and countless others lie squarely at the door of Israel. In Gaza, we learn to survive, however we can. But we have no security. Our lives hang by a thread to which Israel holds a scissor.

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