Those of us living in Washington, DC, New York, and other cities on the East Coast of the United States have just experienced a momentous storm, with some areas receiving well over two feet of snow. We worried about the possibility of losing electricity, on which heat and kitchen appliances depend. We complained about the lack of immediate municipal services charged with cleaning our roads. We stocked up on food and essentials to wait out the storm in our well-insulated homes.
Such anxieties pale next to the harsh reality of winter in Palestine. A recent article about Palestinian schoolteachers up for a global teaching award showed a photograph of one of their classrooms: the teacher and all the children in this West Bank school were wearing their coats and jackets inside. This is perhaps because many of these schools are not heated well, if at all, making the harsh winter cold a constant reality, both indoors and outdoors.
In the Gaza Strip, the situation is quite dire. This winter, Israel has drastically reduced gas supplies to Gaza. More than 20 percent of households there have no access to gas, and many hospitals and schools are in the same situation. Electricity has been cut from 8-10 hours to 4-8 hours/day. The result is a population denied adequate heat, the ability to cook and run greenhouses for growing their food, and many of the basic needs of daily life.
The situation in Gaza is acute largely because of Israel’s war on the strip in the summer of 2014, which left it devastated. There has been little or no rebuilding in many areas. A large number of people are homeless, living in makeshift homes that are insufficient to shield them from the elements. “There is no electricity, water, food or gas. We don’t even have firewood. Our life here is poverty, worries, blockade and homelessness,” says a Palestinian mother. The rains also often bring flooding.
Regarding health in the Gaza Strip, UNRWA states that “Food insecurity and rising poverty mean that most residents cannot meet their daily caloric requirements, while over 90 per cent of the water in Gaza has been deemed unfit for human consumption.” To be sure, Israel’s closure of Gaza since 2007 has wreaked havoc with the population’s fundamental requirements, like food, water, and shelter. Gaza’s infant mortality rate has increased from 2008 to 2013, and medical professionals attribute the cause to the long-term blockade of Gaza. This is the first such rise in fifty years.
On the West Bank, Israeli home demolitions continue. On February 2nd, Israel demolished 23 homes in two poor southern West Bank villages, leaving 100 Palestinians homeless and in the cold. Some of the displaced will now live in caves, as they have nowhere to go.
Cold and wet weather in Palestine will not be over anytime soon, and the situation could get even worse. Just last week a storm brought snow and freezing weather, closing Palestinian schools for days. In 2014 and 2015, storms delivered feet of snow and brought cities to a standstill. Many fear there will be a repeat this year.
Indeed, there are problems caused by nature, such as heavy rain or snow storms and severe cold, and those purposefully caused by humans, such as Israel's military occupation, wars against Gaza, and house demolitions. The combination of the two makes for an arduous, often deadly, situation for the Palestinians. The international community needs to remember, and act on, the fact that the impoverished or homeless population in the West Bank and Gaza requires critical aid to stay warm during these severe winter months. Gaza, in particular, needs urgent support, especially as a result of Israel's destructive policies.
Zeina Azzam is executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. The views expressed are her own.