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Gaza's ruined homes offer little shelter from storm

AFP , Thursday 8 Jan 2015
Palestinians warm themselves by a fire as they sit in a makeshift shelter outside their house, which witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day offensive last summer, on a stormy day in the east of Gaza City January 8, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
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Living by candlelight with no electricity and reliant on sandbags to stop their ruined homes flooding, Gazans who survived last year's Israeli offensive are now struggling with a brutal winter storm.

As millions across Israel and the Palestinian territories hunkered down for the worst storm of the winter, freezing rain and gale-force winds battered the Gaza Strip where more than 100,000 homes were destroyed or damaged during the 50-day offensive.

Wael al-Sheikh, 37, lost his home during an Israeli air strike and now lives with his two sons in a tent pitched among the ruins.

But with no access to electricity, it is impossible to fend off the cold.

Fearing that the winds of 80 kilometres (50 miles) per hour would simply blow their makeshift home away, they have sought refuge with relatives.

Imad Mutlaq's home was also largely destroyed in the July-August offensive and the wind whistles through the cracks in the walls.

"We have no electricity or heating," he told AFP, describing the first night of the storm as "difficult".

Thirty-year-old Mohammed Ziyad, father to two young sets of twins, is trying to put on a brave face.

During a previous storm, the ground floor of the building where they live flooded, but this time he said the family is well prepared.

"We have stocked up on milk and nappies in case we find ourselves stuck indoors."

With or without a proper roof over their heads, everyone is facing the same problem: the chronic shortage of electricity which has plagued the tiny, impoverished strip that is home to 1.8 million people.

Gaza's sole power station, which was damaged during the Israeli offensive, is struggling with a severe lack of fuel and is only able to supply the enclave with six hours of power per day.

The persistent power cuts have forced most people to rely on candles for light and wood fires for warmth or to cook, both of which are unsafe.

On Wednesday a child was seriously wounded in a fire caused by a candle, days after two children, aged three and four, died when their home caught fire in Gaza City's Shati refugee camp.

The tragedy sparked a political outcry with several figures fiercely criticising Hamas, the de facto rulers of the enclave, including some from its own Islamist camp.

Islamic Jihad and leftist factions lashed out at both Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas -- who reconciled their differences and formed a unity government last year -- for failing to deal with Gaza's humanitarian crisis since Israel's offensive.

Officials in Ramallah have declared a state of emergency after much of the West Bank was blanketed in snow.

Gaza, which lies on the Mediterranean coast, escaped the snow but was hit by hail and strong winds.

Raed al-Dahshan, head of Gaza's civil defence, said his staff were facing "a difficult situation which was compounded by a lack of infrastructure" to help those suffering from the storm.

During last year's Israeli assault, nearly 2,200 Gazans were killed and much of the territory was left in ruins.

According to UN figures, 124,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and around 100,000 people remain homeless. Of those, 17,000 are sheltering in UN schools as they wait to be rehoused.

More than four months after the ceasefire, reconstruction has hardly begun in a territory ravaged by three wars in the past six years.

The winter storm is sapping Gaza's tiny economy, with farmers fearful that the weather and near-freezing temperatures could damage crops, and fishermen afraid to work because of the danger of their boats capsizing.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online. 

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