x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Gaza homeless count cost of siege

Five months after the end of Israel's assault that left 50,000 people displaced, wide-scale reconstruction has yet to start.

Fadi Abbed Rabbo stands in the bedroom he refurbished with materials he salvaged.
Fadi Abbed Rabbo stands in the bedroom he refurbished with materials he salvaged.

GAZA CITY // It is with some pride that Fadi Abed Rabbo showed visitors around the room he had just finished furnishing for his upcoming nuptials. There, he pointed, he had the wall bricked up to convert what was formerly a shop into the ensuite bedroom that it is now. There he tiled the bathroom floor and installed a wash hand basin. "It's not much," smiled the 24-year-old. "But I think I'm lucky."

If ever there were a testament to the notion that everything is relative, it is Mr Abed Rabbo's "luck". Six months ago, he had finished furnishing a fully outfitted apartment in his parents' home in which to begin his married life. That life was postponed when Israel launched its military offensive on Gaza in late December. It was decimated when Israeli tanks and bulldozers demolished the entire Abed Rabbo neighbourhood, east of Gaza City, including his parents' house, while withdrawing from Gaza after it declared a ceasefire on Jan 18.

According to the United Nations, 14,000 buildings were destroyed in the weeks from Dec 27 to Jan 21, when the last of Israel's troops withdrew from the Gaza Strip. More than 1,400 were killed. More than 50,000 people were left homeless by the war. Many of these people have, like Mr Abed Rabbo, crowded in with relatives. Tens of thousands, however, remain homeless, forced to shelter in temporary tents erected by international relief agencies.

Five months after Israel's war on Gaza finished, and four months after the international community pledged US$4.4 billion (Dh16bn) in new aid, the reconstruction effort in Gaza has still not begun. Any attempt at reconstruction has foundered first and foremost on Israel's continued restriction on anything but emergency relief goods from entering Gaza. Cement, steel, wood and other construction materials are impossible to obtain except on the black market, and are then too expensive.

Compounding the problem, the faltering reconciliation talks in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah have rendered distant the prospect of a unity government with which the international community might be willing to deal, while the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has rejected the idea of an international mechanism to circumvent that problem. Many Gazans despair of ever seeing their homes rebuilt. Subhiya Sharif still comes every day to sit under the trees in her garden on the edge of the Abed Rabbo neighbourhood. A bulldozer destroyed the house the widowed 65-year-old shared with her two sons and their families, but left the many trees in an otherwise green and pleasant garden.

She can think of no reason why the house should have been destroyed and the trees left, indeed no reason why the family was targeted at all. Meanwhile, her sons, forced to rent elsewhere are left repaying the loan the family took to build the house in the first place. "What did I do to deserve this? The Israelis destroy wherever they go; they're crazy," she said. "I remember fleeing our home in 1948, when we came to Gaza, but this time was worse."

Others, like Mr Abed Rabbo, are taking matters into their own hands. Having moved into the house of a relative, Mr Abed Rabbo rummaged the demolished family home to find the tiles, sink, toilet and bricks to refurbish the shop on the ground floor. Home-grown projects are also springing up. In the Jiayah neighbourhood of Gaza City, a local non-governmental organisation with Hamas government funding has started construction of an orphanage to be built entirely with Gazan resources and traditional design. The building, the brainchild of Ziyad Thatha, the Gaza minister of national economy, will be constructed entirely with clay, sandstone and sand as well as the rubble of destroyed buildings.

"There is an urgent and immediate need to reconstruct Gaza," Mr Thatha said. "And due to the international and Arab silence on the siege imposed by the Israeli occupation, we've come up with a project that does not rely on anything not already in Gaza." Mr Thatha, an engineer, enthusiastically explained the dome-based foundation, columns and domed roof at the heart of a structure designed to spread the weight of the building and withstand any kind of weather. It builds, he said, on centuries of traditions of Arab mud brick craftsmanship, long forgotten.

"We have had to train all the workers and will still have to convince people that it is a durable and practical design." If the project is a success, Mr Thatha said, the Gaza government will help fund or secure funding to rebuild the homes of all those whose houses were destroyed during the war. And should the siege end, he predicted, the traditional craftsmanship could survive in an effort to attract tourism.

It is, however, a labour intensive affair, and thus costly, and Mr Thatha smiled wryly when reminded of the money the international community has pledged for the reconstruction of Gaza. "If the international community is serious, then it needs to apply pressure on Israel to end the siege. If the siege is ended, the government will co-ordinate with donors to ensure that the reconstruction of Gaza can properly begin."

Mr Thatha stressed that, beyond the logistics of what is needed and where, the Hamas government would not in any way interfere with any country or organisation that came to rebuild Gaza. But he rejected any political conditions on such aid. At the site of the proposed orphanage, Yasser Rihan, 30, was finishing moulding clay bricks for the day. Although he conceded that he would rather be working with concrete and steel, he said he considered the project a "miracle". "We are a people able to create anything from nothing."

In the Abed Rabbo neighbourhood, Mrs Sharif did not see much reason for optimism. "It's been five months and we still have nothing. We are a people divided and isolated from the world." okarmi@thenational.ae