Winter is falling hard in Gaza.
Heavy rains for the past months since November have led to the flooding of houses and roads, especially in Gaza’s many refugee camps.
In al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp of Gaza City, Baha Hamad, 40, stood surveying the damage caused by rain leaking through his asbestos roof in December.
“I don’t have money to build the kind of walls that will prevent water from leaking inside,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
Hamad’s home also houses his wife and five children, and their predicament is not unique. Many houses in the camp need to be rain-proofed, especially in the areas that overlook the Mediterranean Sea where dwellings are directly exposed to lashing winds and strong rains.
The narrow alleys and roads of the camp also flood easily.
“The camp’s roads have been damaged due to the rains over the past years, and the houses have been affected due to the poor infrastructure,” Hamad said.
Some of this could have been avoided with better drainage. But that is the kind of infrastructure project Palestinians in Gaza cannot undertake because of the 14-year-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
Bad year, worse decade
Like everywhere else, 2020 was tough in Gaza. But in this overcrowded, besieged and impoverished coastal strip of land, lockdowns and the economic and humanitarian pain resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated an already desperate situation.
More than half the population already lived under the poverty line. And the economy has suffered dramatically as a result of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza and repeated Israeli military operations that, according to the UN, have cost the territory nearly $17 billion dollars in the decade from 2007-2017.
The UN argues that without the blockade and Israel’s military operations, poverty in Gaza could have fallen as low as 15 percent by 2017.
Certainly, infrastructure projects – sewage networks, water desalination plants, repairs to the area’s only power station – and reliable and direct access to medicines and medical equipment could have spared Gaza’s two million Palestinians much pain over the past year of COVID-19.
Instead, the impact of the pandemic has been exacerbated by a chronic and dramatic lack of essential drugs and protective personal equipment for medical professionals, a lack of drinkable water, and few facilities for distance learning during this period of enforced quarantine.
Now add winter.
With February still to come, this has already been a busy winter for Gaza’s civil defense service. According to interior ministry statistics, emergency workers responded to over 130 weather-related emergencies by mid-January, a number that will only rise before winter is over.
No money, no repairs
Last February, Jamil Abu Riyala’s house, also in Beach camp, was damaged during a similar wintry period of heavy rains and stormy weather when two corrugated asbestos sheets were blown off his roof.
November’s heavy rains then caused the roof to leak. Last month, another two sheets came off the roof, which started leaking again.
Abu Riyala, 38, cannot afford the constant repairs these damages demand nor to fix the leaks through which rainwater seeps into the home. The former blacksmith lives there with his wife and three children, as well as four unemployed brothers, one of whom has two children.
They are living through the worst financial situation they’ve experienced, and repairs, necessary as they are, only add to this burden.
“I don’t have the money to afford the materials I need to plug the holes in my roof,” Abu Riyala told The Electronic Intifada. But not doing repairs means potential extra costs too.
“Unfortunately, water has leaked into my house and damaged the furniture.”
Hamad, a former fisher who is now unemployed, also lacks the money to repair damage to his house caused by inclement weather.
Their predicament is shared by other residents of the camp every winter.
“The houses in the camp are crowded. Many of them will be badly damaged if the roads are flooded. In previous years, we’ve tried to put out sand barriers, but they’ve not helped much,” Abu Riyala told The Electronic Intifada.
This winter is expected to be even tougher, because of pandemic lockdown restrictions that have forced the closure of many businesses, pushing yet more people into poverty.
In the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, residents are experiencing even worse conditions. There, Suzan Huneidek, 40, her husband and six children, ages 3 to 15, have to gather firewood to keep a house warm that has been leaking for two months now.
Huneidek’s husband, Muhammad, 42, was a farmer but has been unemployed for five years. They simply have no money for repairs. And they are always cold.
The toughest year
Huneidek tries to burn wood to keep her children warm and to gather them all in one room near the door, where rainwater does not seep through.
“We fight hard to secure food from anywhere. I do some house cleaning for money. But we cannot escape the harshness of winter. During the rains in December, the water was leaking into my children’s beds and I had to cover them with my blanket,” she said.
Muhammad said the family had been unable to replace damp mattresses and blankets for the children.
“This is the toughest winter ever. We sometimes cannot secure food. And we can’t afford anything to protect ourselves from the cold,” the former farmer told The Electronic Intifada.
In the Gaza City neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan, Muhammad Radi, 40, spent two nights with rainwater dripping from the roof of his house. He tried to fix the leaks several times but with no success.
He used to bring a special material every year to fix them, and some years he would put up nylon sheets to divert rainwater onto the road.
He can no longer afford such measures. The unemployed former construction worker sometimes cannot secure food for his four children.
“This year is tough on us all. I spend all the time thinking about how to secure food for my four children, but I have been unemployed for three years,” Radi told The Electronic Intifada. “I only receive food parcels from UNRWA every two or three months.”
UNRWA is the UN body that cares for Palestinian refugees.
During winter, Radi continued, camp residents would normally go out to collect firewood to keep their asbestos-riddled, leaky homes warm, but pandemic restrictions have left them unable even to do that.
“This winter is harsh on us,” Radi said. “From the start, my house was not fit for human habitation. Now, it is too cold for even animals to bear.”
Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.