Gaza’s Electricity Crisis Could Turn Hospitals into ‘Morgues,’ Red Cross Says

Gaza’s only power plant went dark on Wednesday, running out of fuel following the commencement of Israel's “complete siege,” of the coastal enclave, in the words of Israel’s defense minister. The loss of power will worsen the deadly plight facing Gaza’s densely packed population of 2.2 million. The new electricity crisis comes as Israel steps up its retaliation after Hamas militants killed 1,300 Israelis and kidnapped 150 over the weekend. More than 1,350 people in Gaza have been killed in ongoing Israeli airstrikes, which have leveled entire city blocks.

Israel’s siege has cut off food, fuel, water, and medical supplies from reaching Gaza, which, in addition to the airstrikes, has created the conditions for a humanitarian catastrophe. Lack of electricity will likely worsen conditions and make it more difficult for Gazans to communicate with each other and the outside world.

“Without electricity we cannot be in contact with our loved ones or check the news to find out whether they have been displaced, whether they have been injured, or whether they have died,” said Mahmoud Shalabi, senior program manager in Gaza for Medical Aid for Palestinians, an aid group, in a quote provided to TIME. “As a humanitarian, I will not be able to do any of the work that I have been doing to try and respond as much as we can.”

Read more: How to Help Victims of the Israel-Gaza War

Perhaps the most disastrous near term likelihood is that the enclave’s hospitals lose power, with critical consequences for wounded victims of the ongoing bombardment in urgent need of medical care. The Palestinian health ministry has said that hospital generators will run out of fuel on Thursday. The International Committee of the Red Cross warned on Thursday that back up generators could shut off within hours, threatening to turn treatment facilities into “morgues.” Israeli power lines supply most of Gaza’s electricity, and Israel’s leadership has vowed to withhold power and block food, fuel, and medical aid from entering Gaza until the hostages taken by Hamas are released.

Brienne Prusak, a press officer with Doctors Without Borders, says that as of Wednesday the organization’s medical workers in Gaza likely have electricity, but that the group is concerned about losing power going forward. “We are already seeing shortages of water, electricity, fuel, and essential medical supplies in hospitals, and our emergency stocks on the ground are limited and will run out quickly if we can't bring in medical equipment and medicines,” Prusak wrote over email. “We moved medical supplies from our two-month emergency reserves to the Al-Awda hospital, and we have used three weeks’ worth of this stock the past three days.”

On Wednesday, the organization said all the patients treated by its clinic in Gaza City were children between 10 and 14 years old—women and children have tended to be the ones at home when airstrikes hit.

Gaza has been under a blockade instituted by Israel with the cooperation of Egypt since 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave. Since 2017, tensions between Israel, Hamas, and the political authority in control of the West Bank have caused an ongoing electricity crisis, leaving Gaza with only extremely intermittent power supplies. Power typically operates for about half the day

Those factors have made life challenging for Gazans for years, long before the current siege. Among the most critical impacts to daily lives have been difficulties getting water due to lack of working electrical systems, according to a 2020 Red Cross survey. More than three quarters of people surveyed also pointed to their inability to store fresh foods in refrigerators.

Israeli leaders say they are girding for a long and costly conflict in Gaza, a new war that will generate yet more deaths and human suffering, and also likely perpetuate Gazans’ deprivation for years. 

“They say that this time it's different,” Léo Cans, head of Doctors Without Borders in Palestine, said of his colleagues working in Gaza in an Oct. 10 statement. “They don't see a way out and they wonder how it’s all going to end.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com