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Gaza’s lack of electricity is devastating kids, especially those whose health depends on it

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Rami al-Kamouni kisses his son on his forehead and watches as Mohammed takes a deep breath. His 12-year-old is inhaling medication with the help of a nebulizer, a routine he'll repeat several more times that day.

Mohammed has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects his motor function and has required of him seven brain surgeries in Gaza and Israel. Because of his respiratory difficulties, he relies on special equipment, including an electric nebulizer, to maintain his breathing throughout the day.

"Mohammed’s life depends on electricity. His mattress is electric. He has an electric nebulizer. He also has an electric fan to avoid bedsores."
Rami al-Kamouni, Mohammed's father

But undermining Mohammed's already fragile health is an electricity crisis in Gaza, depriving the strip's two million residents of consistent power in their homes.

Gaza has long suffered from electricity shortages, but the situation escalated in June, a casualty of the friction between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, the Islamist group that seized control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to him 10 years ago.

As a way of putting pressure on Hamas, Abbas asked Israel, the main provider of supplies to Gaza, to reduce payments for Gaza's electricity bill. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, acquiesced.

In hopes the group will cede control of the seaside strip, Abbas has tried to box Hamas in a corner financially. In April, he slashed the salaries of more than 50,000 civil servants by 30 percent and imposed heavy taxes on the power plant's fuel.

"I can admit that there is a Palestinian division, a political conflict," Basem Naim, head of the health sector in Gaza's Hamas-run government said. "But that's not the excuse to devoid anyone of their basic rights."

The United Nations, which considers the coastal Palestinian territory to be occupied by Israel, warned Gaza was at risk of “total collapse” should the daily blackouts persist.

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In a statement provided to Circa, Israel's Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) blamed Hamas for the power outages, saying the group preferred to “promote terrorism and harm the residents" of Israel over Gaza.

People living in the Gaza Strip go about their daily lives unsure of when the lights will come on, or how long it will last. In some neighborhoods, blackouts last up to 20 hours a day.

Mohammed's mother, Enas al-Kamouni, says this leaves her with little time to take care of her family.

"I can't do anything in four hours,” al-Kamouni said. "There is not enough time for me to cook, to do homework and to take care of Mohammed.”

The al-Kamounis own a small generator, which they run when the electricity is cut off. But Rami al-Kamouni has been struggling to pay for it, so neighbors pitch in for fuel when possible.

“When the electricity is off, it gets so tiring for us in the home," al-Kamouni said.

Most Gazans can't afford solar energy or generators, and even for those who can, such supplies are scarce. Citing security concerns, Israel has enforced a blockade of Gaza since Hamas seized power in 2007. The blockade limits the entry of goods considered to have a "dual" military-civilian use — including certain batteries and generators.

The power cuts haven't only redefined daily household life in Gaza. Gregor von Medeazza, chief of the water, sanitation and hygiene program at UNICEF, says they could have long-term implications on Gaza's health sector.

"You have 2 million people that are literally choking — half of which are children."
Gregor von Medeazza, chief of the water, sanitation and hygiene program at UNICEF

Gaza's 13 hospitals, already operating with a shortage of supplies and staff, have been forced to run on emergency generators, which doctors say are prone to malfunctioning. Particularly at risk are newborns in incubators and kidney dialysis patients whose machines must run for hours at a time uninterrupted. It's not uncommon for hospitals to discharge patients early, postpone elective surgery or close their doors when the generators stop working.

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The continued power cuts are also compromising vaccines, blood and medicines that need constant refrigeration. According to the World Health Organization, 40 percent of Gaza's essential drugs were depleted in August.

The fuel shortages have also impacted access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Without electricity, Gaza's five sewage treatment plants have been forced to shorten their treatment cycles. They're now dumping over 100 million liters of untreated or partially treated wastewater into the Mediterranean per day.

“That’s like 42 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with sewage," explained von Medeazza.

For many Gazans, without electricity to cool their homes, the strip's 25 miles of beaches provide their only respite from summer's sweltering temperatures. But according to von Medeazza, 73 percent of the coastline is considered too polluted for swimming.

In August, a five-year-old boy reportedly died after swimming in contaminated seawater.

Young people, unable to sleep at night due to the summer heat or finish their homework in the light, are especially affected by the electricity cuts, according to Save The Children. The international charity says more than 740 schools in Gaza are struggling to operate without electricity.

"We shouldn’t have to be demanding such a basic service as electricity for the children of Gaza," Save The Children's Jennifer Moorehead said in a statement.

"A couple of hours of power a day is just not acceptable in 2017."
Jennifer Moorehead, Save The Children

Everyday life was already bleak for the nearly 2 million Palestinians who call Gaza home. Over 40 percent of the population is unemployed. Eight in 10 people rely on international assistance to survive. Reliable access to food, sanitation and safe drinking water is out of reach for much of the population.

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Two years ago, the U.N. warned Gaza could become “unlivable” by 2020. The organization now says the Hamas-run strip is deteriorating faster than first predicted.

The current living conditions are "catastrophic," Adnan Abu Hasna, a Gaza-based spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said. "We are talking about basic things. These are human rights."

Videography for this piece by Khaled Alashqar.

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