Tens of thousands displaced as floods, snow swamp Middle East

Dec 15, 2013 12:00 AM

The Gaza Strip yesterday received its first supplies of fuel after a weeks-long power crisis worsened at the weekend due to a severe winter storm that has flooded an estimated 40,000 residents out of their homes and dumped heavy snowfall across the region.

Raed Fatuh, an official in the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority (PA) who deals with the transfer of goods to Gaza, said Israel was supplying about 450,000 litres of fuel to restart the territory’s sole power plant.

The PA used donations from Qatar to buy the fuel from Israel, he said.

Qatar answered an appeal from Gaza’s Hamas rulers for US$10 million (Dh368m) in aid to buy fuel.

Doha is funding nearly half a billion dollars worth in reconstruction projects for Gaza, which has been ravaged by years of Israeli attacks and a blockade imposed since Hamas seized power in 2007.

Hamas, which refuses to deal directly with Israel, which it does not recognise, has blamed the fuel shortage on Egypt’s destruction of cross-border smuggling tunnels in recent months.

Gaza’s electricity company said its plant began working yesterday for the first time since being shut down in early November, when stocks of diesel ran out. The power plant supplies about 30 per cent of the territory’s electricity needs.

“Hopefully, the power plant will gradually resume full operation during the day. The fuel we are receiving from Qatar will allow us only to return to the old schedule of eight hours of cuts followed by eight hours of power,” said Ahmed Abu al Amrain, an employee at Gaza’s energy authority.

Residents of Gaza have been coping with blackouts of up to 16 hours a day amid unusually severe winter weather. The cuts have affected schools, hospitals, businesses, and water and sanitation plants.

Officials in Gaza said the power shortage was also hindering the recovery from flooding caused by torrential rains.

The flooding forced as many as 40,000 people to abandon their homes, Hamas officials said. More than 5,000 were taken to safety by boat or on military and construction vehicles, they said.

The Palestinian Maan news agency reported that 96 people were injured.

“We got some assistance, some blankets and some food, but I didn’t save any of my belongings,” said Said Halawa, 52, a taxi driver from the Sheikh Radwan area in northern Gaza.

A rainwater reservoir in his neighbourhood overflowed, forcing Mr Halawa and 41 members of his family to evacuate their home by boat for safety at a nearby school that had been converted into a shelter.

Gaza’s housing minister, Yousef Jhariz, estimated the initial damage at $64 mm.

The spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Chris Gunness, described Gaza as a “disaster area” that “can only get worse before it gets better.”

In the West Bank and Israel, the storm brought heavy snowfall that has left thousands of homes without power.

At least four people died in weather-related incidents in Israel over the weekend, including two men whose vehicle was washed away by flooding, Israel Radio reported. West Bank civil defense forces reported at least one death and 53 injuries.

Residents in the West Bank were struggling to clear roads of snow, as much one metre deep in some areas.

Municipal workers in Ramallah spent most of Saturday and yesterday clearing streets in the hilly city, where residents said they had not seen such large amounts of snow in decades.

PA government offices were closed yesterday, except for emergency services, and officials called for caution among residents.

Kamel Hemeid, the governor of Hebron, said a 30-year-old man near this West Bank city died after slipping on an icy street. He also estimated that damage to Hebron and surrounding communities could reach “tens of millions of dollars”.

As much as a metre of snow had blanketed some areas of his district, Mr Hemeid said, adding that electricity had been restored to most residents in the area.

However, the 15,000 residents of Tekoa, a Palestinian village near Bethlehem, had been without power for four days, said the community’s mayor, Hatem Sabbah. Tekoa receives electricity from a Palestinian company that in turn receives it from an Israeli one, but calls for help to officials at both companies had gone unanswered, he said.

“Using our own equipment, we’ve cleared our roads, and thankfully no one has died,” Mr Sabbah said. “But man, we’re freezing here.”

He said they had not seen such heavy snowfall since 1991.

Even the Jewish settlement next to his community, which also is called Tekoa, did not have power, he added.

In Israel, main highways connecting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and West Bank settlements were closed to private vehicles. Some 14,000 homes were still without power, including 6,000 in Jerusalem, the Israel Electric Corp said.

Temperatures were forecast to reach about 8°C today and rise further during the week, with a small chance for rain in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

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