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Amid epic destruction, weary Gaza struggles to rebuild

Israel's summer confrontation with Hamas inflicted more damage to homes and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip than at any time since 1967. But the reconstruction so far has been piecemeal.

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A grandfather and grandson in the largely destroyed Gaza neighborhood of Shejaiyah, where they're living in the rubble of their former home.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

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Gaza is facing its most daunting reconstruction challenge in half a century after a war with Israel inflicted what the United Nations humanitarian agency here has called the worst damage since the Jewish state occupied Gaza in 1967.

Water, sewage, and power have all been hobbled if not destroyed. Triple the homes were destroyed and nearly 10 times more people displaced than in the 2009 war with Israel. And the challenge of rebuilding is compounded by Palestinian political divisions and international concerns about funneling millions of dollars into a territory still under Hamas’s sway. 

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An estimated 70 percent of Gaza’s remaining factories were hit Israel and has so far maintained limits on the delivery of construction materials like cement, which it classifies as "dual-use." Failure to rebuild in a thorough and timely way could spell humanitarian disaster or spiraling violence – or both.

“I believe that after this [additional] stress on Gaza ... these people are going to be more radical and extremist and this is a very dangerous situation,” says Ashraf Jomaa, a member of the Palestinian legislature from the Fatah party, who advocates international pressure on Israel to lift restrictions on building materials.

Classes should already be in full swing at Abu Hussein school in the Jabaliyya refugee camp. But the rickety desks are stacked against the chalkboards to make room for dirty mattresses as dozens of displaced Palestinians crowd into each classroom – except the last one, which Israel hit in the war, killing more than a dozen people.

The conditions in this and other shelters run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, are unsanitary. But the more than 110,000 displaced people are not being picky. In Jabaliyya, Moen Hmaid is in the principal’s office fielding their requests. He played a similar role in 2009, but says this war was much worse.

“The destruction of houses was much more aggressive, and the reaction of the people was also much more aggressive,” he says. “Even kids … their behavior is really unbelievable.”

Just then, a wiry young man barges into the office demanding to speak to Mr. Hmaid. He’s been bumped from one shelter to another, and has just been told he can’t register here without municipal paperwork proving his home was destroyed.

Hmaid calmly rips a scrap of paper out of his notebook and gives him a phone number to call.

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School's in, or out?

UNRWA schools are tightening their rules to open as many classrooms as possible before school begins Sept. 14. Some 22 schools were completely destroyed and another 118 damaged in the war. And there was already a shortage of about 200 schools before the war, according to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Gaza also had a shortage of 71,000 houses going into the 51-day battle between Hamas and Israel this summer, due in part to the damage sustained in the previous two conflicts. And only 2,800 of the 3,500 homes destroyed five years ago had been rebuilt, according to the Ministry of Housing.

This summer, Israeli air strikes and shelling destroyed an estimated 10,080 homes and rendered more than 8,000 unlivable. Some 485,000 people were displaced at the height of the conflict, though that has now been reduced to about 110,000.

Naji Sarhan at the Ministry of Housing says rebuilding homes hit in 2009 cost $600 million; he says $1.5 billion is needed to rebuild homes now.

The ministry has established a committee to coordinate between ministries, aid groups, and donors involved in removing rubble and rebuilding, but their work is impeded by a power struggle between Hamas and its secular rival Fatah.

Hamas relinquished control of Gaza to a unity government of technocrats in June. But the new government has been very hands-off when it comes to Gaza, and has refused to pay employee salaries since it took over – in part because Hamas had a backlog of overdue salaries, but also due to international restrictions on funneling money to Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the West.

Mr. Sarhan says, however, that 45 of the ministry’s 170 employees predate the Hamas government, especially engineers and accountants, who were chosen for their professional expertise rather than political views.

Now the ministry is strewn with debris from Israel’s bombing of an adjacent skyscraper. Several displaced employees type on their laptops in the lobby, their offices too damaged to use. Yet despite the difficult conditions, employees are working up to 15 hours a day to jump-start reconstruction.

“Maybe we’ll shorten the suffering period of our people,” says Jawad Alagha, the head of the ministry’s new coordination committee. “This is our driving force.”

How to rebuild

A donor conference originally slated for September in Cairo has been pushed back at least a month, with no firm date set.

And the very companies that are needed to help rebuild Gaza, such as the Arab Contracting and Concrete Industry Co. on the eastern edge of Gaza, have seen their factories flattened.

Ali Salem Khatter, a manager waiting for inspectors to evaluate the damage, estimates it will take a minimum of six months and $6 million to rebuild. He says the concrete was used by UNRWA and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

On Sept. 4, Israel allowed two trucks of cement for UNDP and 10 trucks for UNRWA into Gaza – the first such shipments since before the war. Israel has also green-lighted raw materials for factories and tin sheeting, which had been largely banned since Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza when Hamas took control in 2007, according to Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for greater access for Gaza.

With the smuggling tunnels on the Egyptian border largely shut down, far greater quantities of building materials are needed, as well as a comprehensive plan for how to proceed with reconstruction on an unprecedented scale.

That leaves local authorities, like Rafah mayor Ahmed Nasser, in the lurch; he says there is 30,000 tons of rubble in his city alone, mainly due to an Israeli blitz after Hamas reportedly kidnapped a soldier.

Meanwhile the displaced are finding shelter in schools, with family, or in rentals, whose prices have doubled. Mahmoud Wadiye, who lost his home in Shejaiyeh, is renting a small apartment for $500 a month for 27 people. He says he doesn’t want international aid, just support for Palestinians’ right to sovereignty.

Mr. Wadiye, smartly dressed and sitting in the rubble outside his home, says that, “I have dignity, and my dignity will not let me beg" and that he will look "to God" for his help.