x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gaza's unsinkable 'Ship' still stands

Looted by neighbours, mortared by Hamas in its battles with Fatah and pummelled by Israeli air strikes, only parts of the 'Safina', or 'Ship' as it is known locally, still stand. But stand it does. Hugh Naylor reports from Gaza

The building’s resilience amid the Palestinian territory's turbulence inspires some as a symbol of their own steadfastness against Israeli aggression. Anne Paq / The National
The building’s resilience amid the Palestinian territory's turbulence inspires some as a symbol of their own steadfastness against Israeli aggression. Anne Paq / The National

NORTHERN GAZA STRIP // Little of its former grandeur remains.

Looted by neighbours, mortared by Hamas in its battles with Fatah and pummelled by Israeli air strikes, only parts of the "Safina", or "Ship" as it is known locally, still stand. But stand it does.

Its resilience amid the Palestinian territory's turbulence inspires some as a symbol of their own steadfastness against Israeli aggression.

For others, it is a scene of terror because of its penchant for attracting earth-rattling rocket attacks.

"Some of us haven't replaced our windows since 2008 because we would have run out of money by now if we had to keep doing it," said Ramadan Attar, 47, who lives in an apartment building next to Safina.

"Residents are terrified. But people always talk about it - it's attacked over and over and over. But it's still there. I can't explain it."

There are conspiracy theories, but few have solid answers as to how the building has avoided destruction.

In the battles with Israel that began last Wednesday, residents living near Safina said dozens of air strikes had smashed in and around it.

Militants have regularly used it to fire rockets at Israel.

The Israelis started pounding the building regularly in its 22-day war on the enclave in 2008-2009.

Just north of Gaza City, it provides Palestinian fighters enough open space and relatively close range to zero in on Israeli cities and military targets kilometres over the boundary.

One side of the building rises more than four storeys over the rubble of its remains.

While some see the remarkable stamina of the building, others speculate.

"They don't want to hit the buildings - it's the tunnels running underneath that Israel wants to destroy," said Abu Mohammed, 53, a father of seven who runs a grocery nearby.

And the conspiracy theories? Jamil Badresawi, 52, a trader of electrical appliances who also lives in the area, linked Safina's indestructibility to the espionage exploits of American spies.

"The CIA built it, so it's protected," he said.

Construction on Safina was completed in 2000 at a cost of US$12 million (Dh44m), financed in part by US aid money, said a former colonel in the Palestinian Authority (PA), who began working there in 2003. Its two five-level buildings had as many as 50 rooms each, making it one of the largest buildings in the territory at the time. A suspended bridge connected the two buildings.

The former colonel claimed US intelligence officials led training seminars for their Palestinian counterparts.

"That's why it wasn't it attacked by Israel during the [second] intifada," he said, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in September 2000.

The building, also known back then simply as "Mukhabarat", or "intelligence", earned the ship nickname because of its sprawling, imposing shape.

It was used by the primary intelligence gathering agency in Gaza. But its operations remained a mystery to most Gazans until 2007 when Hamas Islamists overran the PA and the rival Fatah faction.

Before Hamas took control of Gaza, Safina's two buildings were still intact.

The Islamist group waged fierce street battles in the area with Fatah fighters before taking the strafed and pockmarked building in late June 2007.

"Hamas fired rockets at it and fought hard before they took it," recalled Samah Kassab, 31, a resident in the area who fled this week with her two children after Israeli attacks.

When Hamas did take Safina, it allowed local residents to loot its copiers, computers and furniture. Even the electrical wire was taken.

Pillaged is a word the former colonel used to describe the scene. And this was after the PA had set fire to all its top-secret documents

Yesterday, recounting the building's history, he could only marvel at Safina's endurance.

Residents in the area said it was hit by six air strikes the evening before.

"It shouldn't be there any more, any of it," the colonel said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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