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Israeli strikes hit a Gaza that grows darker by the day

Two-year-old Ashraf Shadi Kali died early this week, and his parents and one-year-old brother were injured, in a fire sparked by candles the family was forced to use because of Gaza's continuing electricity shortages. Their home was destroyed.

The family is just one of many forced to rely on kerosene, candles or, if they can afford it, a generator to provide a bit of light and warmth as the dark, cold days of winter approach.

Now, with the increased number of Israeli air strikes - like the one that killed Hamas military chief, Ahmed Al Jabari, and eight others on Wednesday - people are afraid to be out on the street. That means spending a lot more time in our unlit, unheated homes.

Gaza has been suffering from power cuts and fuel shortages for most of the year. The Hamas government in Gaza blames Egypt and Israel for restricting the flow of fuel into Gaza. Five years of the Israeli blockade has also limited access to the spare parts needed to keep Gaza's fragile infrastructure operational.

For innocent residents caught in the middle, this is a continuing humanitarian disaster that needs immediate attention. Most needy families tend to use candles during blackouts because they're cheap, but they can weaken the eyesight of children who try to study by the flickering light.

The use of candles and kerosene also has more tragic implications. In 2012, at least 10 people died and scores more were injured due to suffocation or inhalation of poisonous fumes or the misuse of small generators.

My family is lucky to have a small generator at home, but each time my father turns it on, I have a moment of fear that it will blow up or poison us.

In Gaza, where unemployment is high, few families can afford luxuries like generators, usually smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. They are expensive, as is the fuel to run them. But a generator is essential to warm the house and keep food from spoiling. The constant jarring rumble has become an awful, unwelcome melody in Gaza these days.

Since Israel's blockade of the region began, Gaza has experienced turmoil and challenges that sap our resources and severely test our perseverance - from the lack of clean water to a dilapidated, crumbling infrastructure, not to mention absence of access to outside markets to sell our goods to provide for our families. Add to that the recent fuel shortages and power cuts that affect some 1.6 million Palestinians.

Power cuts affect almost every aspect of our lives and exacerbate our already difficult living conditions. Think for a moment about the consequences of power outages. Inconsistent electricity disrupts health services, education, the supply of clean water, sanitation systems and so much more.

Lack of power forces our hospitals and clinics to rely extensively on generators, which are not designed for prolonged use. More often than not, surgeries have to be delayed. Uneven power supplies affect the refrigeration of medicines and vaccines, increasing the risk of contamination. Kidney patients need regular electricity for dialysis.

Studying in darkened classrooms affects students' eyesight and ability to concentrate. So do the sound, smoke and smell from small generators that are used in schools and homes.

Electricity is needed to pump water for domestic use and irrigation. Without that power, our water supply is insufficient, raising hygiene and health concerns. The lack of electricity also affects agriculture, as the lack of refrigeration causing crippling losses of produce on its way to market, not to mention dairy and egg production. Lack of water and power reduces a farmer's ability to pump irrigation water to his fields.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory estimates that electricity demand in Gaza can reach 360 megawatts a day. But Gaza Power can only produce about 80 megawatts, which is supplemented by 120 megawatts purchased from Israel and another 22 megawatts from Egypt. All of this meets less than two-thirds of Gaza's demands.

Moreover, the power company has been operating at about one-third of its operational capacity and often has to shut down because of fuel shortages. That means blackouts, both scheduled and random, that last from six to 18 hours every day.

The lights are dim these days in Gaza. Maybe that makes it harder for the international community to focus on the harsh reality we are living. It is yet another challenge we face every waking hour of our lives. It is exhausting and demoralising.

Last July, the United Nations issued a report predicting that Gaza would be unlivable in 2020. I think their calculations were off. It's unlivable now. We deserve better. We have the skills and talent to do better. With help from the international community we need to take action immediately to improve the situation in Gaza, and save the future for our children.


Rania Elhilou, a native Gazan, is a Gaza-based communications officer for American Near East Refugee Aid

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