Frustration mounts in Gaza Strip over reconstruction
GAZA CITY -Every day, from dawn to dusk, Subhi Gharbali sits on a pile of ruins of what used to be his two-storey home, destroyed during an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Gharbali, 67, has been desperately, yet eagerly, waiting for several months to have his house rebuilt.
“I heard there’s a reconstruction plan being considered but I don’t know when it will start,” Gharbali told The Arab Weekly while sitting on a chunk of concrete atop a heap of debris from his demolished home in Shujaia district in eastern Gaza City. “It has been 11 months since the war ended,” he sighed. “A truce is holding but no reconstruction has begun.”
“Look around you, it’s like the war ended just yesterday,” he added, pointing with his cane at wreckage in his middle-class neighbourhood, where rows of cement and white-limestone houses were demolished by Israeli shelling.
“We want to return to our homes soon and our patience is wearing thin.”
On July 8, 2014, Israel launched an air, sea and ground military operation on the coastal enclave on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, saying it wanted to stop rocket attacks against Israeli cities by Gaza’s militant Palestinian Hamas rulers.
Hamas’s attacks increased after Israel clamped down on the group’s adherents in the West Bank following the June 12th kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers by two Hamas members.
Hamas fired more than 400 rockets at Israel. Its goal was to bring international pressure to lift Israel’s blockade of Gaza, force the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and overcome its political isolation following its 2007 seizure of the strip from moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel’s offensive on Gaza ended with an Egyptian-brokered truce on August 26th.
Nonetheless, the conflict left 2,140 people dead and more than 10,000 wounded and resulted in massive destruction of thousands of homes, mainly in the area between the northern and the eastern borders of the Gaza Strip with Israel. Housing, infrastructure, industry and agriculture in Gaza all sustained significant damage.
The United Nations estimated that more than 7,000 buildings — homes to 10,000 families — were destroyed. An additional 89,000 homes were damaged by the bombing. Rebuilding costs were calculated to run from $4 billion to $6 billion over 20 years. Many of those who had their homes destroyed took shelter in schools, while some lived on the debris of their flattened homes and others rented apartments in the densely populated strip, home to 1.8 million people.
Gharbali said he and 35 members of his family fled their home at the outset of heavy Israeli military shelling days into the war. The family ran from one house to another in Gaza until it found shelter at a school with other displaced families. He said his family later moved to a small apartment.
“I go to the rented house to sleep but I come back the following day in the morning and stay near the debris of our destroyed home,” said Gharabli. He said he hears in the news that reconstruction will start soon.
“But nothing happened yet.”
“Every passing day feels like a year has gone by,” he said angrily. “Our situation is tragic. We got used to living happily in our home and we find it difficult to stay in a small apartment.”
Others like Gharbali said what Gazans hear about reconstruction “are only empty promises”, mainly from the international community.
Mahmoud Salem, 53, lives with his family at a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He said the school shelters hundreds of homeless Palestinians. He said his house consisted of three floors which were turned into rubble.
“We are living a new Nakba,” Salem said, using an Arabic word that means “catastrophe” – a term Palestinians attribute to the day Israel was founded in British-mandate Palestine following the 1948 Middle East War.
Salem said conditions in Gaza were deteriorating.
“The world is neglecting the displaced Gazans and the Israeli siege was never lifted,” he said. “The promises and pledges we heard are just lies and the international community is playing with our emotions.”
Last October, Arab and international donors pledged at a meeting in Cairo to disburse $5.4 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction but disputes with Israel on the mechanism of shipping raw material to the enclave blocked the process.
Many Western nations and their traditionally moderate Arab allies are hesitant to release funds to an area under the rule of militants, who reject a negotiated settlement with Israel and call for its annihilation.
Disputes between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement have also delayed the reconstruction bid.
Adnan Abu Hasna, UNRWA’s media adviser in Gaza, said his agency had asked an international donors conference in Cairo for $724 million but only $216 million has been delivered. “UNRWA understands the frustration and outrage among the population, mainly the homeless people who are living a tragic life,” said Abu Hasna. He warned that there was a broader concern that if reconstruction remained stalled, “the popular frustration will mount and may lead to an explosion”.
Hamas officials blame reconstruction delays on tight Israeli security restrictions on crossing points, which are hampering the entry of reconstruction materials.
Talal Oukal, a Gaza-based political analyst, told The Arab Weekly that “the reconstruction plan is stuck and not moving ahead because the process of allowing construction material into Gaza is fully controlled by Israel”.
“So, what is happening now is literally giving people pain killers by making promises that reconstruction will start to keep them under check,” he said.