GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Caught in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s civilians are increasingly struggling to get by. There is no electricity 21 hours a day because power lines have been hit. Water taps have run dry because there’s no power to their fuel pumps and tens of thousands of displaced sleep on the floors of schools and hospitals.
The hardship is felt more keenly as Muslims on Monday start observing the Eid el-Fitr holiday, which is meant to be a joyous time of festive meals, shared traditional sweets and family visits. Here is a glimpse of life in wartime Gaza.
Men kneel in prayer on blankets laid out in the courtyard of a U.N. school in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood, one of dozens of emergency shelters for those who have fled the fighting.
It’s the morning of Eid el-Fitr, the three-day holiday that caps the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. In normal times, the men would have worshipped at their neighborhood mosques.
However, 20 mosques have been hit by Israeli warplanes so far, according to Palestinian officials. Israel says Hamas stores weapons and rockets in houses of worship.
So the men prefer to perform Eid prayers in the relative safety of the school.
“We can’t go to the mosque because of the shelling,” says 39-year-old Mahmoud Nofal, who has lived at the shelter with 30 members of his extended family for more than a week.
Near the worshippers, many are still sleeping, some atop desks they pulled into the courtyard, others alongside walls.
After prayers, the men line up to pick up their food rations of pita bread, tuna, corned beef, processed cheese and extra holiday cookies for the children.
The U.N. aid agency that runs Gaza schools has been around for more than six decades. It was established after more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 Mideast war that created Israel.
Nofal is a descendant of the 1948 refugees.
“Today, I feel like a refugee again,” he says.
Visiting the graves of one’s ancestors is part of the Eid el-Fitr morning ritual.
At a sprawling cemetery in Gaza City’s Sheik Radwan neighborhood, Omar Khatib stands on the edge of a large crater formed by an Israeli missile strike several days earlier, which he says destroyed 22 graves of his extended family.
A crowd quickly gathers, inspecting the hole and the broken headstones.
A young man climbs into the crater, retrieves a bone from the bottom and wraps it in cloth. Several men pray over the remains.
After a few minutes, another man brings a shovel and reburies the bone in the sandy soil.
“They are even chasing the dead,” says the man who had climbed into the crater, referring to Israel’s military operation. He’s upset and only gives his first name, Yousef.
Israel says Gaza militants hide behind civilians, firing rockets at Israel from Gaza parks, schools and cemeteries. Israel says its military operation is meant to halt rocket fire and destroy Hamas’ military arsenal and attack tunnels under the Israel-Gaza border.
Palestinian health officials have counted more than 1,000 dead in Gaza and the U.N. says three quarters of the casualties are civilians.
It’s getting more difficult to find burial spaces.
The Sheik Radwan cemetery has been full for years, with graves just inches apart from each other. The main new cemetery in eastern Gaza is in a dangerous area where Israeli troops operate. Authorities in Gaza have issued a fatwa, or religious edict, permitting the newly deceased to be buried inside the graves of relatives in the older cemeteries.
Ayman Afana, who was 24 years old, was killed in an airstrike 10 days ago. He was buried at the Sheik Radwan cemetery on top of the remains of his 70-year-old grandfather who died in the 1990s, says a relative, Mohammed Afana. On the occasion of the holiday, Mohammed and other relatives sprinkle flower petals on the fresh grave.
Electricity and water have become luxury items.
Supply was spotty even before the war, as a result of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade tightly enforced after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007. In recent years, Gazans have adapted to scheduled power cuts – in the best case, eight hours on, followed by eight hours off, and so on.
Gaza gets its electricity from Israeli and Egyptian lines – for payment – and from a power plant in Gaza.
The Israeli lines have been damaged in the fighting, leaving only supplies from Egypt and the power plant, says Jamal al-Daradasawi, spokesman for the local electricity distribution company.
Gazans are now without power for 21 hours each day. The blackouts could get worse if the power plant runs out of fuel, as it has repeatedly in the past.
Without power to run pumps, there is no water, especially in Gaza’s high-rise buildings.
Rawan Taha, a 39-year-old housewife, lives in such an apartment tower. She says she last showered three days ago. When the water is on, she fills her bathtub, pots and empty bottles. Gaza’s tap water is not drinkable, and her family pays 20 shekels ($6) each day for drinking water.
“Israel took us back 70 years,” she says. “No water, no power, no security, no Internet, no cell phones, nothing.”
Cash is also a scarce commodity, even for those who have money in the bank.
Only 12 ATM machines belonging to seven banks work in all of Gaza City, police say.
Jihad Sakani has tried unsuccessfully to withdraw money because huge crowds form outside each machine whenever a brief humanitarian cease-fire is announced.
More than a week ago, Sakani and his family fled the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah, devastated by fighting, leaving behind clothes and valuables. They have been staying at a U.N. school, but his wife checked on the house during a brief lull Saturday.
“She found only rubble,” he says. “Now I am homeless, broke and I can’t even get to my humble salary of 2,400 shekels ($700).”
The civil servant says the daily scramble for the basic necessities has distracted him from thinking too much about the future, but he knows it will be bleak.
“Gaza was the largest prison in the world over the past seven years,” he says. “Now, in 21 days, Gaza has become the largest cemetery in the world, for bodies and for hope.”