| William Booth |
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (WP-BLOOM) — In almost every way, the Gaza Strip is much worse off now than before last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. Scenes of misery are one of the few things in abundance in the battered coastal enclave.
Reconstruction of the tens of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed in the hostilities has barely begun, almost six months after the cease-fire. At current rates, it will take decades to rebuild what was destroyed.
The economy is in deep recession; pledges of billions in aid have not been honored; and the extremist militant movement Hamas, which controls the enclave, refuses to loosen its grip and is preparing again for war.
Diplomats, aid workers and residents warn of a looming humanitarian crisis and escalation of violence.
“After every war, we say it cannot get worse, but I will say this time is the worst ever,” said Omar Shaban, a respected Gaza economist. “There is no sign of life. Trade. Import. Export. Reconstruction. Aid? Dead. I’m not exaggerating when I tell my friends abroad: Gaza could collapse, maybe soon.”
At night, Gaza twinkles with thousands of campfires. Electricity is often available only six hours a day.
About 10,000 Gaza residents are still sleeping on the floors of UN-run schools. Many more are living in caravans or tents, or huddling in their bombed-out apartments. All told, 100,000 people remain displaced.
“He went blue,” said Moeen Khassi, the grandfather of a five-month-old who died in his sleep in freezing temperatures in a gutted home near the former front lines. The family blamed the cold.
The 50-day war between Israel and Hamas, a group that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, almost 70 per cent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Israel says half of the Palestinian dead were militants. Seventy-two Israelis were killed, most of them soldiers.
Cash assistance from the United Nations to displaced refugee families has stopped. The programme ran out of money last month.
The leader of Israel’s Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, told a global security conference in Munich last weekend that Gaza is “a powder keg” that could “explode at any minute.” In exchange for demilitarisation, Herzog said Gaza needs a kind of “mini-Marshall Plan” akin to the US programme that rebuilt the ravaged economies of Europe after World War II.
With great fanfare, donors promised in October at a conference in Cairo to give $5.4 billion to the Palestinians, much of it for reconstruction. But virtually none of the pledges have been honoured, according to UN officials in Gaza.
One reason for the reluctance to deliver funds is Hamas, which retains control of Gaza and its 1.8 million residents.
In joining a “unity government” last year, the militant organisation agreed to allow President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, the moderate government based in the West Bank, to return to Gaza. Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, and Abbas’s Fatah party fought a bloody and losing battle against the extremist group for control of Gaza in 2007.
In the months since the summer war, Hamas has rid itself of many of the responsibilities of governing but not its grip on power.
Last month, the group’s military wing ran training camps for 17,000 youths, ages 15 to 21, to learn to shoot Kalashnikov rifles, jump through hoops of fire and perform basic first aid in preparation for the next battle with Israel. The camps were staged even as Hamas municipal employees went unpaid.
Hamas security forces still exert control on their side of the three trade and travel crossings between Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Journalists arriving from Israel still must have their papers stamped and their permits approved by Hamas cadres.
Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, have largely failed to assert themselves in any visible way. The prime minister of the unity government has visited Gaza just once since the war, for barely a day.
The strip is by turns moribund and seething. Residents blame their duelling governments for inaction, as well as the United Nations, Egypt and Israel.
Extremists who consider Hamas too moderate tried to storm the French cultural centre in Gaza City last month, enraged over the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Protesters, probably encouraged by Hamas and angered by the cessation of rebuilding aid, stormed a UN compound and threatened its staff.
Bank machines in Gaza City have been repeatedly hit by explosives. Nobody knows who is setting off the devices. In the past month, at least three car bombs have exploded in Gaza, as Palestinians escalate hostilities between vying factions.
A foreign diplomat whose government runs aid programmes in Gaza, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly, said Abbas and his government see the strip as “a dirty diaper. No one wants to touch it.”
East of the crowded Gaza city of Khan Younis, Adnan Abu Daqqa and his extended family live in tents left over from a previous war. He can’t remember which one. “You never throw anything away in Gaza,” said the 57-year-old farmer.
During the summer war, he said, Israeli tanks left trails across his farm. The family’s home is in ruins, levelled by Israeli explosives, he said. “We had animals, rabbits, goats, a horse.”
He held up a bridle. Where is the horse? He pointed to the sky.
He and the relatives he lives with, including six grown sons and their families, got $2,000 in war reparations from Hamas. His wife cooks food on an open fire. The kids play in the rubble.
“The border with Israel is right over there,” Abu Daqqa said, pointing. “The Jews will be back.” He said that after previous wars, he always expected life would get better, at least for a while.
Now? “It won’t get better,” he said.
Israel has maintained a partial trade and travel blockade against Gaza since Hamas took over in 2007. These days, in a deal struck by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations after last summer’s war, families and their dwellings are assessed for damage by the United Nations, lists are provided to the Israeli military for clearance, and truckloads of aggregate, steel bars and cement are allowed into Gaza.
In December, the most recent month for which figures are available, 2,259 truckloads of building materials entered Gaza. The United Nations estimates that to cover housing reconstruction and repair within three years, it would take 735 truckloads per day, seven days a week.
Israel restricts and monitors imports into Gaza because its military fears that building materials — cement and plumbing pipe — will be used by Hamas to build tunnels, bunkers and rockets.
“All this does is prevent civilians in Gaza from rebuilding,” said Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha. “The restrictions will have minimal to zero impact on Hamas tunneling. They can rebuild using recycled materials.”
Gaza factories were hit especially hard during the war. One of the largest private employers in Gaza is the Alwada ice cream, potato chip and cookie factory. Its top two floors were gutted, damaged by Israeli shelling. “We haven’t gotten a penny from the UN, NGOs, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas,” said Alwada’s executive manager, Manil Hassan.