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Gaza cease-fire raises hopes for reconstruction

2:15 PM, Nov 25, 2012   |    comments
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His mother's home was bombed in the 2008-09 Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which left hundreds dead and thousands of homes destroyed. In renewed fighting last week, an entire block of buildings housing his extended family was badly damaged in an airstrike that Israel said was aimed at a militant.

While none of his relatives was hurt, the 61-year-old retired schoolteacher once again has to worry about providing shelter for his family. Some relatives are sleeping in an empty shop, squeezed in with other family members. Others are spending their nights in rooms covered in plastic wrap to shield them from the winter rain because all the windows were blown out.

"This is going to cost thousands," Azzam said. "The longer I wait, the more damage will happen," he added, pointing to a heavily damaged building sitting atop tilting concrete columns.

Azzam finds himself caught again in a pile of paperwork to seek assistance, trying to secure hard-to-get construction materials. This time, he hopes the process will be smoother, thanks to both Israel's pledges to ease its longstanding border blockade and the newfound political clout of Gaza's Hamas rulers in the region.

Israel promised to ease the blockade as part of a cease-fire last week that ended eight days of intense fighting. But difficult negotiations lie ahead, and there is no firm timeline for lifting the restrictions.

Israel launched its offensive Nov. 14 in response to months of rocket fire out of Gaza. It carried out some 1,500 airstrikes during the fighting, while Palestinian militants lobbed a similar number of rockets into Israel.

The damage to buildings in Gaza appears less extensive than it was four years ago. The United Nations estimates 10,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, while Hamas has put the number at about 8,000, including 500 that were destroyed or heavily damaged. In comparison, U.N. relief agencies said as many as 40,000 homes were affected in the earlier round of fighting.

Israel says its airstrikes are aimed at militants, and it blames Hamas for the damage, accusing the group of using residential areas for cover.

Reconstruction since the 2008-9 fighting has been slow, in large part because of Israel's blockade. Israel imposed the restrictions in 2007, after Hamas, a militant group sworn to its destruction, wrested power over the coastal strip from the government of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Under international pressure, Israel loosened the blockade in 2010 but maintained tight restrictions on imports of glass, cement, metal and other construction materials, saying they could be diverted for military use. Only U.N agencies and international organizations in the Palestinian territory are allowed to import such material from Israel for their own projects.

To make up the shortage, a bustling smuggling industry through underground tunnels along the Egyptian border has sprung up. While prices for key construction goods have come down, they still remain expensive for the majority of the population in Gaza, where the unemployment rate is over 30 percent and 80 percent of the people rely on U.N. handouts.

"The blockade in terms of housing impacts us primarily - the U.N. -and the people who are most vulnerable who don't have access to jobs or economic opportunity," said Scott Anderson, deputy director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. "People who have money, it is easily available."

In the short term, there is no relief in sight. During the recent offensive, Israel heavily targeted the tunnels, which are also used to bring weapons into Gaza. Residents along the border say that smugglers and tunnel owners are still inspecting the damage but that many of the tunnels still operate, though at reduced capacity.

An Egyptian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, estimated that half the tunnels are not functioning.

With a sullied face and wearing only his undergarments, Azzam gave up his search for valuables in the rubble of his destroyed home on a recent day. He sat down to take a break and do some math.

His mother's house was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2009. Since then, he has barely managed to rebuild one of its two floors. A $25,000 grant he received from an Arab fund did not cover the costs, and materials for the project have been hard to come by.

The Hamas government has given him $1,000 to find a place to live for now, and each member of the extended family received a similar amount. With housing in tight supply and rents skyrocketing, Azzam said the money will not last long.

"As we look there are no places to begin with," he said. "If we find a place, rent will be around $300 or $400. Before it was $200."

Yasser al-Shanti, deputy of the ministry of public works and housing in the Hamas government, said construction materials will start flowing into Gaza again once the tunnels are up and running again.

But Hamas' real hope is that Israel and Egypt will lift border restrictions to allow large quantities of goods into the territory through proper border crossings. Hamas has high hopes for Egypt's new Islamist government, which is far more sympathetic to the Islamic group than the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.

The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is currently limited to foot traffic. Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood, wants Egypt to turn the crossing into a bustling cargo terminal.

"We expect that international and Arab institutions are ready to help. We don't expect to have a problem," al-Shanti said.

Hamas has put the damage to Gaza's civilian infrastructure at roughly $750 million, a sum that will probably have to be raised through special U.N. emergency appeals and donations from wealthy Arab countries.

The future of the crossing will be a central issue in indirect, Egyptian-brokered negotiations between Israel and Hamas. Under the cease-fire, Israel made a vague commitment to ease its closing of Gaza. But the details must be negotiated.

With Hamas rejecting Israel's key demand - that arms smuggling into Gaza be halted - it remains far from certain whether Hamas will get what it wants. Egypt also has not been clear how far it is willing to open its border, fearing that this will allow Israel to "dump" Gaza on Egypt and undermine hopes for reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas' rival government in the West Bank.

Ayman el-Kholi, whose two-story home was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike aimed at militants, said Hamas government representatives and fighters, including Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar, visited him and promised compensation.

"They promised that after things calm down, they will begin to reconstruct all homes destroyed and not just ours," he said.

In the meantime, the 41-year-old banker has sent his six children to sleep at various relatives' homes, and he is staying with a friend. The rubble from the destroyed building was still in a heap on Sunday as he waited for the only government tractor to come remove it.

The entire block was damaged by airstrike. Shops were buried and a nearby workshop for electrical appliances was severely damaged.

"We don't save in banks. All my money was in the house. All of it is now under the rubble, around $10,000 plus my wife's gold," el-Kholi said. "We are waiting for an opening of the crossing. We are waiting for donor countries, from Arab countries, to help us rebuild the house again."

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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