Gaza: war is over, for now

After last summer’s war, residents of the suburb of Shejaia returned to a barely recognisable expanse of rubble. Six months on, it hasn’t changed much, and people fear another conflict

 

Rabah abu Shanab lifts the tin jug off the open fire and pours the coffee carefully into some thimble-like cups. The rickety plastic table wobbles on the uneven mud floor, and the coffee almost spills as he sets it down. For a moment he looks embarrassed. “This is how we live,” he says apologetically.

Abu Shanab is plain about his injured pride. Next door to the corrugated-iron shack that he and his extended family of 22 people now call home is the shell of a fine three-storey house where they lived until it was reduced to rubble, in the early days of last summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas.

The house had been a lifetime in the making, the fruit of the long years he spent working as a labourer in southern Israel. “Everything I made in Israel I put into this house,” says the 57-year-old, his grandchildren Abed and Dima playing at his feet. “Then the Israelis came along and destroyed it.”

Abu Shanab’s home is in Shejaia, a suburb of Gaza that faces the heavily fortified Israeli border to the east. The area took the brunt of last summer’s war, bombarded first from air and sea and then occupied by Israeli ground forces, who moved in, they said, in order to destroy Hamas-built tunnels that originated there.

Abu Shanab and his family fled the fighting and took refuge with some friends. When they returned a few weeks later Shejaia was a smouldering wasteland, an endless expanse of rubble so disfigured that returning residents struggled to find the spots where their homes once stood.

It hasn’t changed much in six months: the landscape is an upended mass of grey blocks, crumpled homes and mangled steel rods. The place is quiet, still, almost lifeless.

Abu Shanab and his family left home with little more than the clothes on their backs; everything else they lost. Their cramped quarters have one toilet for 22 people and get five hours of electricity on a good day.

Recurring story Every two months they receive a bag of flour and sugar from the United States Agency for International Development

. “I have to put my hands out to ask for money. It’s undignified,” he says. “We lost everything, and none of it is our fault. Now we’re looking for the basics, waiting for people to feed us.”

Abu Shanab’s is a recurring story in Gaza, where, six months after a war that left more than 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis dead, the reconstruction has barely begun. Official figures show that 18,000 homes were left in ruins last summer and a further 115,000 partially destroyed.

The conflict wrecked 1,800 hectares of farmland and irrigation systems along the border. Electricity lines, water-treatment plants, greenhouses, warehouses and small businesses were also hit.

Most homes in the strip have electricity for about six to eight hours a day, but in districts close to the Israeli border, where underground cables were obliterated by heavy ordnance targeting deep tunnels, there’s no power at all. At night the territory is plunged into darkness, and on a cold evening you can see campfires flickering in parts of the central strip.

Sitting in his relocated office in Gaza (the last one was gutted), Muhammad Salim al-Hasania, the minister for public works and housing, talks of the “big job” facing the beleaguered technocratic government to which he belongs. Donor funds have been agonisingly slow to arrive, he says.

At a specially convened international conference in Cairo last October, participating states pledged $5.4 billion (€4.9 billion) for the reconstruction effort. “Only about $200 million has come in so far, through the UN Development Programme or the government,” says al-Hasania. “You’re talking about 5 per cent of the money that has been promised for the reconstruction.”

The UN programme has given money to 42,000 people whose homes were partially destroyed, but last month the UN Relief and Works Agency, which works with Palestinian refugees, said a lack of international funding had forced it to suspend payments to tens of thousands of families for repairs to homes damaged last summer.

In all Gaza needs more than 800,000 truckloads of building materials to repair infrastructure damaged in the war, yet less than 0.25 per cent of the materials needed have entered the strip in the past three months, according to Oxfam. It estimates that the rebuilding of homes, schools and hospitals could take more than a century to complete unless the Israeli blockade restricting the importation of construction materials is lifted.

Israel, which has maintained the blockade since Hamas took over in Gaza after its election win in 2007, is concerned that

cement, piping and other building materials could be diverted for military use, including the construction of tunnels and rockets.

Under a mechanism agreed between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations after the war, destroyed and damaged homes are assessed by the UN and lists of supplies are provided to the Israeli military for clearance.

The delays caused by Israeli restrictions and the meagre flow of donor money have been compounded by internal tensions between Hamas and Fatah, the party of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, which lost control of Gaza in 2007.

Under a “unity government” deal agreed last year Hamas agreed to let Abbas’s Palestinian Authority return to the territory to set up a joint administration. That remains in place, but in practice it has been severely hampered by factional divisions.

Hamas, meanwhile, is under pressure. Egypt’s closure of the southern border and its destruction of cross-border tunnels have stemmed the flow of imports, pushed up fuel prices and severely harmed the local economy.

Internally Hamas draws criticism for the deterioration in living standards and externally it finds itself isolated. Its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood have been ousted from power in Egypt, and its old patrons Iran and Syria have been alienated by its public repudiation of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

The upshot is that almost 100,000 people remain displaced, living in shelters or temporary accommodation or with extended family. About 8,000 of these are in UN schools, where they live in cramped classrooms and subsist on handouts.

“It’s a big problem facing us as a government and, especially, me as minister for public works and housing,” al-Hasania says. “I feel ashamed about it. I find it difficult even to visit them I feel such shame.”

 

“People don’t trust us as a government”

Al-Hasania admits that the government’s legitimacy is closely tied to its ability to show the people of Gaza it can manage the reconstruction. “People don’t trust us as a government. They say, ‘You promised us it was going to come, but we haven’t seen anything.’ ”

It also has internal problems to contend with: civil servants were each given a lump sum of $1,200 in January, but other than that they haven’t been paid since the war.

On the streets of Gaza the slow pace of the reconstruction has fed into a wider sense of weariness and simmering discontent. The economy is at a standstill, unemployment is soaring and, with Egypt having closed the southern border at Rafah, there’s virtually no way out.

The leader of Israel’s Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, said recently that Gaza was a “powder keg” that could “explode any minute”. His view is echoed by a senior official with a multilateral organisation on the ground. Gaza, he says, is at “boiling point”. The dire situation resonates across the region.

In diplomatic circles it’s taken as a given that progress in Gaza – “a metaphor for all that is wrong,” as Tony Blair put it last month – is a key to unlocking the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet the conditions conducive to peace and stability in Gaza seem a long way off.

“The Israelis don’t want this place to be rebuilt,” says Anwar Hassem, a 47-year-old whose home was levelled last summer. “They want to destroy it slowly. It’s collective punishment.”

Some of the blame is directed outwards – at Israel, Egypt, the US, the UN and international donors – but Hamas is also the focus of some people’s anger.

“Hamas are part of our society; they are Palestinians, like us. But after all this suffering Hamas hasn’t given us anything,” says Nihal Ara’ayr, a softly spoken mother of three who fled her home two days into the war when the windows had been blown in and the house shook with every falling missile. “I want my children to live in peace. I’m not happy with Hamas fighting Israel. Enough killing. The Israelis are much stronger than Hamas. They can kill all of us.”

Nihal says her husband’s brother and three other men were killed by Israeli soldiers when they came back to the house during the fighting; bloodstains are still visible on the wall by the stairs. Her five-year-old son Muhamed, still in shock, suffers from nightmares and is unsettled by strangers. As we speak he clings tightly to his mother, his head buried in her chest. “Nobody fears another war more than me,” she says.

 

Permanent war

Another war. In a place that has seen three wars in seven years conflict can feel like a permanent condition. At Um al Nasser village, at the northern tip of the enclave, farmland forms a 300m buffer zone between residents’ homes and the Israeli border.

In a 20-minute drive through the impoverished village we hear eight warning shots from the Israeli side towards farmers who have strayed too close to the border wall. Three more shots echo from the west, this time from Israeli naval ships warning Gazan fishermen against venturing any farther out to sea. The gunshots are so common that locals barely notice them.

On a sandy street in the village, where the smell of raw sewage is overpowering, 12-year-old Amin abu Gleig is playing with a machine gun made from black-painted wood, with a nail for a sight. When he grows up, he says, he’d like to join the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.

Back in Shejaia 80-year-old Abed el-Helw and his grandson Mahmoud, who is 18, are sitting in the porch of their badly pockmarked house, facing the Israeli watchtowers and a surveillance balloon in the near distance.

Helw, who has lived through six wars, lost his leg during a ferocious firefight last summer and was pulled to safety by members of his family. “I don’t know what did it, because the firing was coming from three directions,” he says.

Helw seems resigned to his lot; there will “never ever” be a peace settlement, he proclaims confidently. All that awaits is another war, with Hamas as Gaza’s “protector”.

Mahmoud, who left school to help his family but has no work, shakes his head at that. “They haven’t done anything for us,” he says, and trails off. He’d love to travel, to see the world, to be rid of the place entirely. “In any other place I could have a life. But here I am, sitting here, doing nothing.”

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