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Winter storm causes humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza

A winter storm has exacerbated the crises facing the Gaza Strip, which was already suffering from sewage problems and electricity cuts.
Palestinian civil defence volunteers paddle a boat to evacuate people from their houses that are flooded with rainwater as a poster depicting Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad is seen on a building, in the northern Gaza Strip December 16, 2013. Israel allowed the entry of 450,000 litres of fuel, paid for by Qatar, into the Gaza Strip on Sunday to enable the Palestinian territory's sole power plant to resume operations. Qatar answered an appeal by Gaza's government, led by the Islamist Hamas group, after f

GAZA CITY. Gaza Strip — Two members of the civil defense forces in Gaza City helped citizens who had been displaced from their homes because of rain to cross a flooded road. They used the metal frame of an old refrigerator stuffed with cork as a boat for transportation, after almost all of the relief machinery and equipment stopped working due to the fuel and electricity crises wracking the Gaza Strip.

A wave of extreme low pressure hit Palestinian territories on Dec. 10, amid cold winds that continued for several days.

Heavy rain caused a major humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip, flooding hundreds of houses in various provinces and neighborhoods, injuring dozens of people and closing a number of main and side streets.

According to the Ministry of Information in Gaza, 4,000 families were forced to leave their homes due to the extreme cold, and the government has offered in-kind assistance for 3,000 families.

Speaking to the Palestinian news agency Al-Rai, the information ministry's Director-General Salamah Maarouf said that the government opened 13 shelters across the Gaza Strip, housing 1,183 families consisting of 5,000 people.

According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, 98 citizens were wounded, mostly in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, as a state of emergency was announced by the ministry to cope with the extreme cold.

A spokesman for the ministry, Ashraf al-Qodra, told Al-Monitor that four citizens were seriously injured and that the rest of the injuries ranged between moderate and slight.

The residential areas adjacent to districts flooded with rainwater and located near sewage treatment pumps were the areas most affected by the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Their inhabitants were forced to completely evacuate their homes and resort to shelters and neighboring schools, after their houses were flooded with rainwater and sewage.

Amjad al-Attar, who lives next to an area flooded with rainwater in the neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan in Gaza City, said that the water coming from various regions kept filling the sewage system until it overflowed and caused a flood. The waters flooded the houses, damaged furniture and destroyed buildings.

Attar, who lives in a tin-roofed house with a sand floor that was mostly blown down by severe winds, had a harsh night after he was forced to flee with his children to a nearby school. “I woke up to the screams of my children, who almost drowned in the water that flooded our house. The waters nearly pulled them toward the sewage basin. I rushed to save them and was surprised to see that the water level had risen to about 150 cm [nearly 6 feet],” he told Al-Monitor.

The same scene that took place in the Sheikh Radwan basin was repeated in different areas, including the Abu Rashid basin, north of the Gaza Strip, and Wadi al-Salka basin in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, in addition to most of the residential areas adjoining sewage pumps. This led to sewage flooding these areas and forcing dozens of families to evacuate their houses.

Farida Abu Kweik, 82, spoke to Al-Monitor while she tried to help her son recover what remained of the furniture in their house adjoining the Abu Rashid basin, which flooded and displaced dozens of families. “Tens of millions of dollars were sent as aid to the Palestinian people in Gaza, but they were spent by the government to develop recreational and tourist areas. Wouldn’t it have been better if this money was invested in the building of more resilient infrastructure works, better sewage systems, and safer housing for poor and destitute families?” she said.

The director of the civil defense force’s public relations office, Muhammad al-Maidanah, reported that dozens of houses were flooded due to torrential rains, in addition to a number of main and side streets.

“The situation is catastrophic. Trees were uprooted; flying billboards and tin panels struck a number of citizens, wounding and breaking their bones. Water flooded hundreds of houses, while hundreds of cars became submerged in streets swamped with rainwater,” Maidanah told Al-Monitor.

He explained that all of Gaza Strip’s provinces met a similar fate, and pointed out that the province of Rafah, (at the extreme southern end of the Strip) was the hardest hit by the atmospheric low pressure area.

Rafah Mayor Subhi Abu Radwan stated to the local Safa news agency, “The Joint Operations Committee dealt with approximately 1,200 citizen reports in the city alone since the low pressure area arrived.” He said 44 of those reports involved flooded houses. 

Local authorities faced the emergencies caused by the atmospheric low pressure area with primitive tools and minimal capabilities, due to the Israeli blockade that restricted imports of heavy equipment into Gaza, as well as the fuel shortage that put most available machinery out of service.

The head of civil defense, Youssef al-Zahar, told the Hamas-owned Al Aqsa satellite channel on Dec. 12, that the blockade and fuel crisis have exacerbated dangers and diminished the government and municipalities’ chances of adequately tackling the catastrophe. “The most we can do is erect sand berms in front of citizen’s homes to prevent water from flooding in,” Zahar said. He said this was the only option available for rescue and relief crews, in light of the blockade and lack of equipment.

Gaza Interior Minister Fathi Hamad also appealed to international organizations, as well as Arab and Muslim countries to save Gaza from this real humanitarian disaster. In a news conference held on Dec. 11 and attended by Al-Monitor, he said: “We are using dilapidated, primitive equipment to try and reach, save, and transport people to safe areas, where they would be safe from drowning. Yet, great difficulties stand in our way.”

Exacerbating the magnitude of suffering at this difficult time in the lives of Gazans was the fact that power outages had reached 30 consecutive hours in many provinces of the Strip.

In statements published by the local Al Quds newspaper on Dec. 12, the public relations officer at the electric distribution company tasked with delivering power to the provinces, Jamal al-Dirdasawi, said that malfunctions crashed the three main power lines coming from the Israeli side to feed northern areas of the Strip and some neighborhoods of northern Gaza City. A fourth line which supplied eastern Khan Yunis with electricity also went down, in addition to the line coming from Egypt. He appealed to all parties to save the Gaza Strip from a real disaster, as the limited amount of available electric power was being exhausted.

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