After deadly fire, Gazans say Israel-Egypt blockade limits ability to fight blazes

Enclave’s equipment restricted over fears of use for terrorism; resident says fire that killed 21 last month could have been subdued earlier if civil defense had better tools

Palestinian firefighters check their equipment at the headquarters of the civil defense unit in Gaza City, on November 23, 2022. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP)
Palestinian firefighters check their equipment at the headquarters of the civil defense unit in Gaza City, on November 23, 2022. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP)

GAZA CITY — Standing on his street in Gaza, Alaa Habboub looked on in horror as flames engulfed his neighbors’ home and screams rang out from the inferno that would claim 21 lives.

The disaster last month, in a three-story residence packed with containers of gasoline, may have been less deadly if the Gaza Strip had a better-equipped fire service, said the 21-year-old.

The densely crowded Palestinian enclave blockaded by Israel and Egypt has a fire and rescue gear shortage, and most of its trucks are decades old, its emergency services say.

“If we had equipment and cranes, the fire would have been brought under control,” argued Habboub, recalling the fire that raged in Jabalia, northern Gaza on November 17.

Israel and Egypt maintain a tight blockade of Gaza to prevent the Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip, from importing weapons and materials and equipment for attacks. The import of so-called “dual-use” goods — – anything with a potential military purpose — is heavily restricted.

Since Hamas took over the territory in 2007, Israel and Gaza have seen multiple rounds of intense, deadly fighting.

Palestinians gather in front of a building as firefighters extinguish a fire which broke out in one of the apartments in the Jabaliya camp in the northern Gaza strip, on November 17, 2022. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP)

While cars can enter Gaza from Israel, fire trucks and cranes cannot, according to Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that examines the issue of dual-use materials.

Israeli officials confirmed to AFP that fire trucks are considered “dual-use” items, adding that one truck donated by Qatar entered Gaza in 2019 through Egypt.

The Palestinian enclave currently has around 20 trucks in working order, according to its civil defense unit.

“We have a shortage of all equipment,” said the head of Gaza’s civil defense unit, Zuhair Shaheen. “Our best model of vehicle was made in 1994. Everything is old and worn out.”

The lack of equipment “increases the number of casualties and damage to citizens’ property,” he told AFP.

Apart from Qatar’s donation, all the vehicles were imported before the Israeli blockade began.

But just one of those is equipped with a working crane capable of reaching the rooftops in Gaza, which now has more tall buildings for a growing population estimated at 2.3 million people.

Shaheen argued it is unjust for Israel to categorize essential firefighting material as dual-use.

“I can assure you, there is no military purpose,” he said. “We are a humanitarian organization that protects and saves lives.”

A fuel truck enters the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel, in Rafah in the southern Palestinian enclave following a truce, on August 8, 2022.(SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Mahmoud Basal, from the civil defense unit, said during the May 2021 war the rescuers lost vital time after multiple airstrikes in downtown Gaza City.

“Unfortunately, we pulled martyrs out from under the rubble who were supposed to have been pulled out wounded,” he said.

He added this was “due to the lack of equipment to detect [people] under the rubble and no capacity.”

The push for more rescue tools has been supported by Haaretz, Israel’s left-wing daily newspaper.

In an editorial days after the Jabalia fire, the paper said officials in Gaza had “warned in the past about the poor condition of their vehicles and equipment.”

“These services urgently need oxygen, ladders, lock breakers, and firefighter suits,” Haaretz said.

Palestinians carry the bodies of people who died when fire broke out in an apartment, in the Jabalia camp in the northern Gaza strip, on November 18, 2022. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“Israel should send this equipment,” it added, insisting the government “can’t ignore its own responsibility for the lives of Gaza’s residents.”

There is no official contact between Israel and Hamas, an Islamist terror group which openly seeks to destroy Israel, meaning all coordination on humanitarian issues is done through intermediaries.

The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, as well as Egypt and the United Nations, serve as key players.

Shaheen said Gaza’s rescue teams work “miracles through their own efforts and with meager resources.”

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