Hamas blames fuel shortage for Gaza baby's death

Palestinians hold a rally demanding Egypt provide the Gaza Strip with electricity and diesel in Jabaliya Refugee Camp, Friday, March 23, 2012. (AP photo/Hatem Moussa)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A Gaza man said Sunday his 5-month-old baby died two days ago after the generator powering his respirator ran out of fuel, but the report was called into question after it emerged that the timing of the baby's death was misrepresented.

The baby's death — which was confirmed to The Associated Press by a man identified as the father and a Gaza hospital official — would have been the first linked to the territory's energy crisis, and the report appeared to be an attempt by Gaza's Hamas rulers to use it to gain sympathy.

However, the AP later learned that news of Mohammed Helou's death first appeared March 4 in the local Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds, in an article written by a relative of the bereaved family.

The baby's father, Abdul-Halim Helou, said Mohammed was born with a lymphatic disorder and had only a few months to live. He said they miscalculated how much fuel a new generator needed to remove fluids that accumulated in his respiratory system.

"If we were living in a normal country with electricity, I think his chances of living (longer) would have been better," Helou said.

The Al-Quds article contained the same details as the one recounted by the Helou family on Sunday, saying Mohammed died from choking on his own phlegm. The story quoted that father as saying their generator ran out of fuel, causing their son's respirator to stop working and ultimately causing the baby to choke to death.

The fuel crisis was relevant in early March as well, but Hamas apparently missed the report in Al-Quds — a publication considered loyal to its rival, Fatah — and Hamas was now trying to recycle the story to capitalize on the family's tragedy.

Confronted by the AP with the newspaper story, the family and Hamas Gaza health official Bassem al-Qadri continued to insist the baby arrived dead at a Gaza City hospital on Friday night.

That timing would highlight the human cost Gaza's 1.6 million residents are paying for 18-hour-a-day blackouts, triggered by a cutoff of Egyptian fuel.

Shortages have caused days-long lines for fuel at gas stations, a sharp reduction in public transportation and families left shivering in poorly built apartments during a wet, cold winter.

More than a year ago, Hamas decided to fire Gaza's only power plant with smuggled fuel from Egypt, rather than pay for more expensive Israeli fuel, as it had done in the past.

Egypt started cutting off the supplies because it was suffering shortages itself and because it wanted to avoid absolving Israel from continuing responsibility for the crowded, impoverished slice of Mediterranean coast. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but still controls its land crossings — except the one to Egypt.

There are hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the 15-kilometer (9-mile) Gaza-Egypt border, and Hamas raises funds by "taxing" smuggled goods, including fuel.

Israel provided some fuel last week as the crisis worsened.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said he was not surprised by the apparent Hamas attempt to alter details of the baby's death.

"I don't believe this case is at all an isolated incident but rather the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Hamas as an authoritarian regime consistently seeks to hide the truth and manipulate the information that is allowed to get out of Gaza."