Thursday evening, 21 relatives, most of them women and children, died in a fire in the Gaza Strip’s Jabalya refugee camp. This disaster is another reminder of the miserable state of Gaza’s fire and rescue services. The fire broke out in a three-story building in a crowded area. According to Gaza’s Hamas-run Interior Ministry, everyone in the building burned to death.
According to the investigation’s preliminary findings, the direct cause of the fire was the large amount of flammable material stored in the building. Though storing fuel for generators is a common practice in Gaza, a special inquiry committee was set up to determine whether this was an accident or arson.
Senior officials in Gaza’s fire and rescue services have warned in the past about the poor condition of their vehicles and equipment. Aside from the severe shortage of equipment for clearing rubble and supplying oxygen, most of the fire engines were bought before 2007 and haven’t been upgraded since.
These fire trucks are worn out. They have no cranes and ladders, and some don’t even have properly working pumping systems. The only ones who have bothered to donate a few service vehicles and two fire engines in recent years are the Qatari government and Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior Palestinian official now living in the United Arab Emirates.
The Gazan authorities accuse Israel of barring the entry of maintenance equipment and other gear the firefighters could use on the grounds that it is dual-use equipment that could also be used by Hamas’ military wing. They also point a finger at the Palestinian Authority, which has been in no rush to buy new fire trucks.
Hamas claims that Egypt, under pressure from Israel, has also barred fire trucks and other equipment from entering Gaza through its border. And some people also blame Gaza’s Hamas-run government, which hasn’t made this issue a top priority. Everybody is trying to shift the blame onto someone else.
The people who suffer from this are more than two million Gazans living in crowded conditions. Israel can’t ignore its own responsibility for the lives of Gaza’s residents, who have been under a blockade for years.
Granted, Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed regret and announced that “the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has sent an offer of humanitarian assistance in evacuating the wounded to hospitals … Israel is ready to give injured Gazans medical help to save lives.” But this offer is irrelevant, because there were no injured.
If Gantz and Prime Minister Yair Lapid truly want to help, they must take steps to improve Gaza’s firefighting services. These services urgently need oxygen, ladders, lock breakers and firefighter suits. Israel should send this equipment and allow the transfer of other equipment that would rescue Gaza’s fire and rescue services.
Direct and indirect talks among all the parties involved in running Gaza take place constantly to maintain quiet and prevent rocket fire and escalation. Now it’s time to raise this issue in discussions, so that Gaza’s vitally needed fire and rescue services can be rehabilitated.