No Way for Gazans to Keep Warm or Dry


Palestinian UNRWA school

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2022, pp. 40-41

Gaza on the Ground

By Mohammed Omer

RASHA SAWALHA warms her son’s hands, holding them between her own, in the bitter cold. The moment she releases them, the cold beckons sharply, invading his small fingers in seconds. She touches his hands. His fingers are freezing again.

Toes fair no better. Keeping her eight family members warm in Gaza, where electricity is often cut, and fuel for heat and cooking is scarce, is a cold reality she faces and often can’t overcome. Rotating between children, using her body’s warmth, she attempts to comfort and provide a shield against the freezing temperature. She dreams of a plastic tarp, something large enough to enshroud their makeshift hovel and prevent the drip-drip-drip of winter rains on the blankets the family uses as they sleep. 

“I put on some logs of wood for cooking and to try to keep the room warm,” she explains, quiet and weary.

Her husband’s income, like many in the besieged Strip, is gone.  He cannot afford even a tarp to try to seal the zinc metal roof. When the winter rains come, Sawalha rushes about the room, distributing pans and dishes to collect the seeping rainwater. It’s a tiresome game, one exacerbated by the possibility of the roof blowing off or falling in during a rainstorm. 


The Gaza Strip is home to approximately 2.1 million people, the majority of whom are under the age of 30. The size of Manhattan Island in New York City, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with an average of 5,800 individuals per square kilometer. The Gaza Strip has been under military occupation since 1967, and under complete military blockade (air, land and sea) since 2007.

Life wasn’t always this difficult. Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in May 2021 destroyed infrastructure, businesses and hundreds of homes, forcing many families like the Sawalhas into temporary shelters made up of scavenged materials. Building materials are hard to come by because most are stopped at the border and prevented from entering. What is allowed through by Israeli officials is often too expensive. The price of plastic in Gaza can vary from 1 NIS to 15 NIS (30 cents to $4.70), depending upon its quality. Gaza’s families living below the poverty line, many employed by the government, have not received their wages from the Palestinian Authority, which itself has had to wait for the release of taxes paid to the State of Israel. 

Wages aren’t the only hinderance. Without supplies to repair bombed infrastructure, it is allowed to deteriorate. Sewage and water pipes burst, sometimes flooding the streets used by Gaza’s school children, who can be seen wading through water up to their waists. The Health Ministry has documented multiple cases of children falling into drainage wells and reservoirs, which are often left open during winter to collect the maximum amount of rainwater for the dry summer months.

Bombed to bits, and aged due to the lack of materials for repairs and maintenance, Gaza’s sewage system can’t cope with the rainwater, or the needs of its 2 million residents. This creates toxic flash flooding and dangerous situations for people and animals. 

Raid Al-Dahsan, spokesman for the civil defense teams, noted his teams rescued 152 people in just two days in mid-January. More flooding is expected during the rainy winter months. 

Gaza City Mayor, Dr. Yahya Sarraj, notes the condition of his municipality’s more than 30-year-old equipment. Maintenance crews can no longer provide support, particularly in areas where Israeli missiles cratered into the buildings and streets just west of Gaza City. This area includes Rimal and three major universities. “Further delaying of the reconstruction of Gaza infrastructure will create new humanitarian and environmental crises,” warns Dr. Sarraj.   

For Sawalha and her family, pleas for reconstruction help provide no comfort. From an opening in their hovel, they watch the fire department go from house-to-house rescuing people with boats. The water has risen that high. 


For family farmers in Nussirat, in the central Gaza Strip, winter is usually good news because they can worry less about watering crops. This year, however, totals have reached 155 mm (6 inches) more than average and winter is only half over. 

Rain is good news for farmers, until it isn’t. Too much rain drowns crops. Over the past decade, several crops have become more difficult to grow due to climate change. Add to this the decades-long occupation, toxic remnants of explosives, the restrictions on exports and today, the once-thriving agricultural enclave barely subsists, straddling famine and extreme poverty. Now the very crops it depends upon, to feed its people and supply work, are in danger. 

Rainwater isn’t the only threat to flooding. The Nussirat municipality announced, in a statement in January, that Israel is opening the Wadi Gaza Dam to allow excess waters to drain into the already saturated farmlands. Residents in the path of the runoff have been warned to be extra cautious. This isn’t the first time flooding has been manmade. Each year, when Israel opens its dams, Gaza’s family farmers complain that doing so destroys their crops. The protestations fall on deaf ears. 

It is yet another reminder of occupation, like the electricity outages and living in homes without heat.

Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports regularly on the Gaza Strip.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *