Did a Gaza family burn to death because of an unpaid bill?

A grieving woman displays a photo of three of the Dheir family children who were killed when a fire swept through their Gaza home.

Ashraf Amra APA images

With their electricity cut off, the Dheir family had no choice other than to rely on candles for lighting. Their desperation had deadly consequences. On 30 January, six members of the family were burnt to death from a fire caused by the candles.

Qamar Dheir was only three-months-old. The baby perished along with three other children — Mahmoud (11), Nabil (6) and Farah (3) — and their parents Hazem (30) and Samar (27).

That morning, people in the Gaza neighborhood of al-Shajaiyeh woke up to learn they had a depressing task to perform: to help bury a young family.

Ibrahim Zaina, an uncle of Hazem Dheir, was woken by his wife at 3am that morning and told that his nephew’s house was ablaze. He rushed to the house and called the fire brigade.

“It turned that the fire engines that reached us didn’t have long enough hoses and they had no special lights,” Zaina said. “They asked us to get a man to pump water for them. Shortly after 4 o’clock, the fire was put out and the first corpse was taken to hospital at 4:15.”

According to Zaina, a crew from the Gaza Electric Company had arrived at the Dheirs’ house the previous morning and cut off its power supply. Zaina is struggling to understand why this measure was taken. Hazem’s salary, he said, was paid by the Palestinian Authority and around $60 was deducted from it each month to pay for electricity bills.

“For almost one month before the fire, Hazem’s power-saving unit — on which he depended during the blackouts that are so widespread here in Gaza — broke down,” he said.

Unpaid bills

The power supply may have been cut because others living in the same building couldn’t afford to pay their electricity bills.

Jamal Dardasawi, a spokesman for the Gaza Electricity Company, said his firm is obliged to finance the provision of fuel for the main power plant in Gaza. The firm has about 200,000 registered users. “Only about 30 to 40 percent of the consumers pay the electricity bills regularly,” he said. “The rest refrain from paying the bills and many households owe the company thousands of dollars.”

Omar Ibrahim Matouq lives along with his other three brothers in central Gaza. He has been unemployed for the past 12 years. His family owes more than $10,000 to the Gaza Electricity Company.

“I am relying on food rations, provided by the local authorities and UNRWA [the UN relief agency for Palestine refugees,” he said. “I have stopped paying the electricity bills since the outbreak of the intifada in 2000. Before then, I used to work inside Israel and all of us in this house managed to pay the bills regularly.

“A brother of mine stopped working as a weaver several years ago because of a downturn in his industry. Even if we manage to squeeze ourselves financially and start paying the bills, is there a guarantee that we will get a regular power supply?”

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) accuses the authorities in Gaza of treating the poor more harshly than the better-off.

“We do not have electricity, and in the same time we are paying double prices for electricity,” said PCHR spokesperson Khalil Shahin. “The generators used widely here are very costly and are sometimes brought to Gaza through underground tunnels. With the high levels of poverty and unemployment in Gaza, people cannot pay for electricity or their medical bills. We need more transparency on collecting money for bills. How come the local authorities force some needy families to pay bills by cutting off power, while in many cases they leave richer people who refrain from paying connected?”

According to the Palestinian Energy Authority in Gaza, Gaza’s power shortages are partly attributable to the limited amount of power coming from Israel. Since imposing a siege on Gaza in 2006, Israel has often restricted the amount of power in Gaza.

No improvement

Though the Gaza Electricity Company has set up a special distribution scheme for all parts of the Strip, power failures of eight to 10 hours a day remain frequent.

“The electricity network in Gaza has been under the Israeli occupation for three decades now,” said Fathi al-Sheikh Khalil, deputy chief of the energy authority. “Over time, the need for power supply has grown rapidly in line with population growth, yet no major improvement has occurred. The Gaza electricity network currently needs a major overhaul. It needs to be fed by other reliable sources of supply.”

He stated that an upgrade costing an estimated $30 million is required. Poor infrastructure means that a large proportion of the energy supplied to Gaza is wasted.

“The Gaza Electricity Company collects only $6 million monthly, $5 million of which funds the fuel that runs the Gaza power plant,” al-Sheikh Khalil explained.

“We need about $10 million to run the plant completely every month,” he added. “Other sources like the EU, UNDP [the United Nations Development Programme] and the Islamic Bank of Development, also fund the Gaza power plant and the overall electricity supply in Gaza. Yet there is no real intervention by those parties towards resolving the problem and embarking on a genuine process of improvement. We only fund the fuel through electricity bills that residents are supposed to pay.”

A few months have passed since the Egyptian government approved the “eight party regional connection project.” In theory, this should allow Gaza to receive power from a link-up that also involves Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Turkey. The Palestinian Energy Authority has learned that the relevant papers have now been sent to the Arab League.

Political split

“We call for this project to be implemented swiftly, so that the problem could be resolved once and all,” said al-Sheikh Khalil. He added that the energy project has suffered from the rivalry between Hamas, which administers Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

“We in Gaza should attend any meetings regarding such a project,” he said. “At least, I have not been invited to recent meetings in Cairo relating to the eight-party connection project. Only our counterparts in the Ramallah government have attended those meetings. Palestinians should end the political split once and for all, so that we can have real development that benefits the people of Gaza.”

As planners try to work out ways of financing Gaza’s energy needs, relatives of the Dheir family recall the loved ones they have lost.

Samir Zaina, a brother-in-law of Hazem Dheir, said: “Hazem was very spiritual. He was very calm, tolerant and peaceful. When there were problems between family members or neighbors, Hazem would display a great deal of goodwill. He would try to solve the problems by being balanced. He was very tender.”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.