A silent killer in Gaza

Palestinian children playing near Gaza’s only power plant, which has had to reduce its production due to the siege. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - “You feel very sleepy and dizzy. You put your head down and all you want to do is sleep. Everything feels very peaceful, you are not even aware what is happening and if there is no immediate intervention you are dead within minutes,” Enaam Abu Nada told IPS.

Abu Nada is one of the lucky ones who lived to tell the tale. In February the aid worker and her 20-year-old daughter Nevine were working in their Gaza City apartment near a generator, to provide emergency electricity, when they were both overcome with carbon monoxide poisoning from it.

What saved Abu Nada and Nevine’s lives, according to doctors, is that Nevine had eaten a meal not long before they started breathing in the toxic fumes from the generator.

Her digestive system reacted strongly to the poisoning of her blood, which was taking place without her knowledge.

“Nevine started complaining of a vicious headache. She was sweating and vomiting and collapsed on the floor. I tried to get out of my chair and open the door to call for help but I was almost paralyzed and my body was too weak. All I could do was bang feebly on the door,” recalled Abu Nada.

“Eventually I managed to attract the attention of my son who rushed us both to hospital where I spent the night and was given an injection, oxygen and medicine. I’m still recovering from the ordeal. My sight has been affected and I ache all over,” Abu Nada told IPS.

Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip, enforced since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, has resulted in chronic fuel and electricity shortages.

These have caused rolling blackouts which seriously threaten the delivery of emergency services provided by hospitals and waste water treatment plants amongst others.

On Friday and Saturday the coastal territory was plunged into almost continual darkness for several days following Israel’s closure of all entry points into the area.

This prevented a limited number of fuel trucks entering and providing emergency fuel which runs the generators which kick in when the electricity cuts.

Oxfam GB in Gaza reports that only 731,350 liters of industrial fuel were delivered to Gaza two weeks ago, representing 21 percent of the 3.5 million liters of fuel needed weekly to operate Gaza’s only power plant at the current maximum export capacity of 80 megawatts.

Last week, only 721,600 million liters of industrial fuel were transferred, and deliveries were cancelled on 29 and 30 March due to Jewish holidays. No petrol or diesel was allowed into the coastal territory in the last two weeks.

As a result Palestinians in Gaza have resorted to installing emergency generators, many of them poor quality Chinese brands smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt, in their homes in a desperate bid to be able to cook, wash and have water to drink.

Generators have become part of the furniture in many homes in Gaza, but without people being aware of the dangers involved.

Alarmed at the deteriorating situation Oxfam GB in Gaza has launched an urgent campaign to try and educate Palestinians in Gaza on the correct usage of generators.

“Last year 75 Gazans lost their lives as a result of handling generators in a hazardous manner. This year so far 15 people have died from either carbon monoxide poisoning or from fires caused by gas explosions. Hundreds more have been seriously injured,” Karl Schembri from Oxfam told IPS.

“One generator can produce the same amount of carbon monoxide produced by 100 motorcars. The monoxide is invisible and odorless. A number of people have died in their sleep unaware they were being poisoned,” said Schembri.

Palestinians in Gaza have been advised to keep the generators outdoors and not inside. They have also been advised not to smoke cigarettes near the generators, or refuel them while they are still on or block the airways.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s fuel and electricity problems are being exacerbated by the continuing feud between the Palestinian Authority (PA) which controls the West Bank and Hamas which rules Gaza.

The European Union, which funds Gaza’s fuel and electricity supplies, had been funding the payments directly until November last year.

From last December they handed the control of the limited amount of fuel supplies, permitted into Gaza by Israel, to the PA government in Ramallah which coordinates with the Israeli authorities.

Hamas accuses the PA of cutting supplies and using fuel and electricity deliveries as a political weapon against it as well as a form of collective punishment against Palestinians in Gaza in the hope of turning them against Hamas rule.

The PA says that Hamas owes them a lot of money and must pay the backlog of Gaza’s electricity and fuel debts before all supplies will be delivered.

But Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Yousef says Gazans cannot afford to pay the bills.

“They are poverty stricken. Unemployment is the norm here, people are struggling to afford food and other basics,” Yousef told IPS during an interview in his Gaza office. “How can they be expected to pay the electricity and fuel bills as demanded by the PA?”

Where exactly the blame lies or how it should be apportioned might be an intellectual exercise for the elites on both sides of the political divide.

However for the average Palestinian in Gaza who is suffering the consequences, ordinary daily activities such as being able to drink water or having a shower or washing the dishes have become an extraordinary struggle.

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