GAZA CITY (AFP) – In war-scarred Gaza, generators are the latest killer, blamed for the deaths of more than 100 Palestinians.
Frequent and lengthy power cuts have fuelled a rush on the diesel-powered machines brought in from Egypt through the smuggling tunnels that are the lifeline of the besieged Palestinian territory.
The Chinese-made generators have brought a little light to Gazans left in the dark by power cuts that can last as long as 16 consecutive hours.
But they have also left numerous families grieving.
“People have blown themselves up switching them on while smoking next to a generator, or didn’t realise the risks of carbon monoxide emissions,” says Karl Shembri of the Oxfam aid group, which is trying to educate Gazans on how to use the machines safely.
Last year, 87 people were killed by fires or carbon monoxide poisoning caused by generators, according to Muawiya Hassanein, who heads the Gaza Strip’s emergency services. Another 23 were killed in the first four months of 2010.
Naseem Abu Jamaei, 48, lost three of his six children to a fire caused by the spilling of fuel stored in his kitchen to power a generator. The three other children were injured.
Eenam Abu Nada and her 20-year-old daughter are among the lucky ones.
One night in February, during one of the numerous blackouts, the two were typing in the basement of their apartment where a generator was running. They closed the door so as not to disturb the neighbours.
A couple of hours later Abu Nada’s daughter fainted and she herself couldn’t get up for an agonising 20 minutes. Her husband eventually rushed the two to hospital where the doctor told them they could count themselves lucky.
“Now we are very well, Hamdulillah — praise be to God — and we teach a very important lesson to others: We tell everyone never to use a generator indoors or near a flame,” says Abu Nada, who is now the public figure of Oxfam’s campaign.
The aid group has handed out 20,000 brochures to clinics, schools and other public places giving step-by-step instructions on the safe use of generators, which most Gazans had never used before the outages became unbearable.
Power cuts are nothing new in the besieged coastal enclave, but they have been particularly bad this year, leading to a rush on the comparatively cheap generators.
The Hamas rulers of Gaza blame the embargo enforced by Israel and Egypt, but experts say that is only part of the problem.
Since Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, seized power in Gaza in 2007, Israel has limited the amount of industrial fuel allowed into the coastal strip, forcing the territory’s lone power station to slash output.
But fuel deliveries dropped well below the permitted 2.2 million litres (quarts) a week, causing longer and more frequent power outages, after the European Commission suspended financing and transferred responsibility for buying the fuel to the Palestinian Authority in November.
It was only a few weeks ago that Hamas did eventually send funds to the Ramallah-based PA in the West Bank to purchase fuel, leading to a slight improvement.
But Munir Abu Hisera, who runs a popular fish store and restaurant in Gaza City remains worried.
“Power cuts are causing us a lot of losses,” he says.
Before closing at night, he packs his fridges with ice, but some of the fish doesn’t keep well that way.
“I try not to store a lot of fish because I don’t know how long the power cuts will be. Sometimes they last for eight hours, sometimes 12, sometimes even 24 hours,” he says.