JERUSALEM — A festive family gathering in the Gaza Strip celebrating a birthday and a graduation turned deadly on Thursday night, when a fire broke out and engulfed a multistory building, killing all 21 people at the party, an official said.
The blaze, in the northern Gaza neighborhood of Jabaliya, was one of the deadliest episodes in Gaza in recent memory beyond the violence from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Gaza’s Interior Ministry said that gasoline stored inside the apartment where the victims had been celebrating had fueled the blaze and the high death toll. An investigation was underway into the cause of the fire.
“Preliminary investigations showed that the storage of a large amount of gasoline inside the burning house contributed to the massive escalation of the fire and the occurrence of this number of deaths,” said Iyad al-Bazim, a ministry spokesman.
The family had gathered in the third-floor apartment of a retired physiotherapist, Dr. Faraj Abu Raya, to celebrate the graduation of his son, who had received a doctorate from a university in Cairo, said Dr. Medhat Abbas, a health ministry spokesman and a friend of Dr. Abu Raya’s.
Dr. Abu Raya and his son, Maher Faraj Abu Raya, who had returned to Gaza from Egypt hours before the party, were among the 21 who perished.
“All of them died,” Dr. Abbas said.
Gaza’s Health Ministry initially put all hospitals in the region on alert to be ready to receive the wounded from the fire. But hours later, it announced that there were no injured.
Videos from the scene showed firefighters battling the fire, which engulfed the entire building. They managed to prevent the flames from spreading to nearby buildings.
A longtime neighbor of the family, Husam Ali, 30, said he was going home when he saw flames coming from a window and heard screams. He and other neighbors tried to get into the apartment building, but the metal front door was locked, he said.
Using a metal tool, they pounded against the door for nearly 30 minutes until they broke through and ran up to the third floor. There, Mr. Ali said, they found another locked door and spent another 30 minutes breaking through. But the heat from the fire was too intense and they ran back outside and waited for the Fire Department, he said.
Once outside, Mr. Ali said, he saw a woman and two children on the floor where the fire broke out, holding onto metal bars covering a window in the burning building. Metal bars over windows are common throughout Gaza as a safety measure to prevent children from falling out.
An 18-year-old resident of the neighborhood said the woman was gripping a cellphone in one hand and repeatedly yelling, “Save us! Save us!”
As the fire intensified, the woman and children lost their grip on the bars and disappeared from view, the teenager said. A college student, he declined to give his name because he was leaving Gaza soon and did not want trouble at the border.
Mr. Ali said that once the fire was extinguished, he went back into the building and saw children lying beneath windows and people piled on top of one another.
In a statement released by the Abu Raya family, relatives of the dead said they had received the news “with great sadness and sorrow.”
“We highly appreciate the great state of sympathy expressed by our honorable Palestinian people from the first moment of the tragedy, as our people tried to help extinguish the fire that broke out in the house, and the civil defense crews worked very hard to put out the fire despite the weak capabilities,” the statement said.
Officials from Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, said at a news conference that they held Israel responsible for the deaths because of the 15-year blockade imposed on the coastal enclave, which Hamas said affected the speed with which firefighters were able to battle the fire. Israel’s blockade restricts or bans many imports into Gaza, including certain equipment and machinery.
The Israeli government had no immediate response when asked about the allegation.
Gaza’s health care system has also deteriorated under severe land, air and sea blockades by Israel and Egypt, restricting what can come into the impoverished enclave and limiting how many of its roughly two million residents can leave. Patients needing advanced care must seek treatment in the occupied West Bank or Israel, but need special permission to traverse the northern Erez border crossing.
In the wake of the fire on Thursday, the Palestinian Authority urged Israel to open the border crossing in order to transport critically wounded patients outside the Gaza Strip if necessary.
A spokeswoman for the Israel civil administration said on Thursday that Israel would help with the evacuation of any injured residents through the crossing as needed.
At least 10 people were killed and 60 others injured after a fire broke out at a market in central Gaza in March 2020. And in January 2013, a married couple and their four young children died in a fire 12 hours after Palestinian electricity workers cut off power to a building because of nonpayment by a tenant — one in a series of house fires, most started by candles.