On Tuesday night, before Omar al-Hazeen left his house in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip, he said good night to his children. The power was out, again, due to the enclave’s longstanding electricity outages, so a family member lit a candle.
By the time he returned, his house was burning to the ground, with his young children still inside. The family frantically tried to alert the authorities, but it took them nearly an hour to arrive. And they had no water source to douse the flames.
All three children, under the age of five, died.
Yusuf al-Hazeen, 5, was set to enter preschool this year before the coronavirus outbreak last week led to the suspension of Gaza’s schools. His younger siblings, Mohammad and Mahmoud, were respectively 3-years-old and 1-year-old.
The Hamas Interior Ministry said in a statement late Tuesday night that it was investigating the incident.
Due to rampant power cuts following Israeli restrictions on fuel entering the Gaza Strip, family members had lit a small candle in their house late at night. After some left briefly, to go to a corner store, the children fell asleep, according to their uncle, who declined to be identified by name.
“We turned around and saw the flames. We rushed back to the house and called the Civil Defense brigade, but no one came,” he told The Times of Israel.
Even though a local Civil Defense station was only 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles) away, it took them more than 50 minutes to arrive, after being called to the scene. By that time, al-Hazeen’s house was scorched, inside and out, and his three children were dead, the uncle said.
“We tried to control the fire, but there was no water. Only the Civil Defense has water,” the uncle said.
Gaza’s infrastructure is fragile and overburdened, the result of several wars and a 13-year blockade by Israel and Egypt. In good times, Gazans subsist on a meager ration of electricity that rarely exceeds 12 hours a day. In crises, however, that can dip as low as three or four hours. Without electricity, local authorities cannot easily pump water to the homes of residents in the coastal enclave.
During the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas, Israel banned fuel from entering Gaza through the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing. Lacking diesel fuel, Gaza’s only power plant shut down, plunging the coastal enclave into darkness.
Israeli authorities said that the restrictions were necessary to hold Hamas responsible for hundreds of explosives balloons launched by Gaza-based groups into Israeli territory, along with sporadic rocket fire.
“The decision was made…in light of repeated acts of terrorism by terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip against the citizens of Israel, which represents a violation of the Israeli sovereignty,” the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said in a statement last week.
Hamas officials warned, however, that the lack of power to hospitals and water grids could put lives at risk.
A ceasefire agreement with Qatari mediation ended the escalation on Monday night and saw trucks with precious diesel fuel entering the Kerem Shalom crossing for the first time in two and a half weeks. The Gaza Electrical Authority announced that the number of hours would slowly increase to eight hours
Gazans have yet to see the announced increase in the amount of electricity, however.
Hundreds attended the funeral of the three children on Wednesday afternoon in violation of a Hamas lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the coastal enclave.
Al-Hazeen bore his children’s remains through the city streets.
“We’re happy people came to stand with us, and to send a message to the government that we haven’t seen anything from them, whatever they say. They say there’s electricity but we’ve yet to see a thing,” the uncle told The Times of Israel.