Gaza can’t breathe

In Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, meals are prepared on outdoor fires, 9 November 2023.

STR APA images

Without firewood, Bassam Badawi is unsure how he would survive.

The father of six said that he uses about 2 to 5 kilograms a day of firewood to complete all kinds of tasks.

“Our life depends on the amount of wood we have,” he said. “We do not use woodfire to just cook. We use it for heating water, drying clothes on rainy days and having some hot drinks like tea.”

Before Israel launched its war on Gaza, Badawi and his family, who live in the city of Deir al-Balah, relied on gas-powered or electric-based appliances in their daily routines. Israel has largely cut off fuel supplies to Gaza since 7 October, allowing in only limited quantities that are far below what the population of Gaza needs.

Badawi is concerned because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find wood each day, not to mention food to eat. He is also hosting numerous displaced relatives at his home.

“Even if we have wood, we sometimes have neither food to cook nor water to heat up,” he said.

Hazardous air

Throughout Gaza, the air is thick with smoke from wood-burning fires and also with toxins from Israeli weaponry.

Dr. Ibrahim Matar, a cardiologist at al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al-Balah, has warned people of the risks of inhaling smoke.

“Many people have come to the hospital with bronchitis and sinus issues – a result of accidentally inhaling smoke and gunpowder,” he said.

The World Health Organization has documented 150,000 cases of upper respiratory infection in Gaza as of December 2023.

Matar said he is especially concerned about individuals with pre-existing lung ailments, since the hospitals are at capacity, but that the poor air quality impacts everyone in Gaza.

And, with the scarcity of wood in Gaza, people will burn anything they can to survive, even plastic and other waste that can produce smoke that is harmful to breathe.

Some have even used gauze with alcohol to keep a fire going.

Since Gaza has never been a highly forested area, with only 13 forests covering around 500 acres, wood is already difficult to find.

Even so, Israeli airstrikes continue to bombard Gaza, and venturing to such far-off areas is dangerous. Besides, most people don’t have the tools to cut down lumber.

They have to rely on what they can find, even cutting down trees in parks and burning scraps of lumber found in rubble.

Constant search for wood

Abu Sharif al-Hasanat’s sons wake up at 5 am to find wood in Deir al-Balah.

“It really requires quite some physical effort,” he said, “and they only come back exhausted, with little wood.”

Abu Hosam Abu Habel, a father of five children, said that keeping wood dry during rain is even more difficult.

On the days he can’t light a fire, they don’t cook.

“We eat canned food for that day,” he said. “It is just painful.”

Abu Habel has been forcibly displaced by Israel’s attacks. He moved from Nuseirat to Maghazi, both refugee camps in central Gaza.

He is concerned about his family’s health, since they are living off of canned food most days. He wishes he could afford alternatives to wood, but they are too expensive.

One kilogram of coal costs around $6.

“It is hard to accept that everything is expensive,” he said, noting that the cost of everything has doubled.

Abubaker Abed is a journalist and translator from Deir al-Balah refugee camp in Gaza.