In war-ravaged Gaza, the same old story, only worse
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Analysis

In war-ravaged Gaza, the same old story, only worse

A year after Operation Protective Edge, 100,000 Gazans remain homeless, with unemployment and poverty even more crippling than they were a year ago

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

In this August 1, 2014, file photo, Palestinians carry their belongings through the heavily bombed Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiyah, close to the Israeli border. (AP/Hatem Moussa)
In this August 1, 2014, file photo, Palestinians carry their belongings through the heavily bombed Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiyah, close to the Israeli border. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

They can be seen from time to time on Gaza’s beaches, in the evenings after the iftar meal that concludes a day of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Men dressed as clowns with red noses and heavy make-up, approaching children walking with their families on the promenade, offering to paint funny pictures on their faces.

“This is a kind of consolation,” says Salah, who lives in Gaza. “Believe me, we don’t have too many reasons to laugh these days. We see no future, not even a tiny light at the end of the tunnel. There is no initiative to end the crisis between Hamas and Fatah or to end the Israeli siege. We feel the hardship here on every level: social, economic, political.

Like many other Gaza residents, Salah does not hide his harsh feelings about the rulers of the Gaza Strip and the economic situation.

“They haven’t started building a single home yet, at least among the ones that were completely destroyed. Do you understand? There are so many people here who have no home at all. And our leadership is busy fighting among themselves. At least the clown on the beach makes the children smile.”

In this June 17, 2015 photo, Palestinian girls are seen reflected in a mirror as they walk next to rubble in the area where they live with family after losing their house in Gaza City. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
In this June 17, 2015 photo, Palestinian girls are seen reflected in a mirror as they walk next to rubble in the area where they live with family after losing their house in Gaza City. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Almost a year has gone by since Operation Protective Edge began and almost nothing has changed compared with the situation in the Gaza Strip just before the war. Hamas continues to rule, arm itself and gather strength, while Israel wants to keep the calm vis-a-vis Gaza, which is still suffering hardship.

To quote a famous Israeli adage, “the sea is still the same sea.”

But still, something has changed — and, as often is the case with the Gaza Strip, for the worse. In Gaza, 16,000 homes (some say 20,000) were destroyed completely during Operation Protective Edge, and almost no massive construction of replacement homes has begun as yet.

The tens of thousands of families that occupied those homes — more than 100,000 people — are still searching for permanent housing.

Add to that the fact that unemployment, poverty and Hamas’s inability to pay salaries to its workers — all of which were factors that led to the confrontation with Israel last year — have all gotten worse.

A recent poll taken in Gaza by Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that roughly 50% of respondents said they would like to leave the coastal territory. Is it any surprise?

Palestinians hold Eid al-Fitr prayers at al-Faruq Mosque which was destroyed the week before in an Israeli military strike on Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, July 28, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians hold Eid al-Fitr prayers at al-Faruq Mosque which was destroyed the week before in an Israeli military strike on Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, July 28, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In the evenings during Ramadan, the city streets fill with people, which should be stimulating the economy. But owners of businesses on Omar al-Mukhtar Street or other places in the Gaza Strip are suffering from a slowdown in sales for the same reason that Gaza’s reconstruction is so long delayed — people have no money.

Sales are up compared to ordinary days, not those of Ramadan, but things are not like they used to be. And unlike Ramallah and the cities of the West Bank, there are no large celebrations in Gaza.

“People attend the prayer service [Tarawih] after the fast, go back home and that’s it,” says Ahmed, a city resident. “There are no parties or shows like we see in other places. The economic situation is strongly felt. Near the site where [the Israeli community of] Netzarim once stood, a project called DinoZoo has been built. It has 15 models of dinosaurs, and the moment a child approaches one of them, the model’s sensors begin working and it makes noises. But don’t get me wrong: hardly anyone goes there because they have no money.”

Growing black market for building material

There is, however, some good news for the people of Gaza. Rebuilding has begun; it is partial, but it has started.

Almost 100,000 homes and housing units were partially damaged during the last war. With shattered windows and cracked walls, they are still livable, though they require some renovation.

According to the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the arm of the Israeli army that coordinates with the Palestinian civilian population, close to 90,000 owners of those partially damaged homes have already gotten the building materials from the warehouses in Gaza that were set aside for this purpose in order to renovate their homes. An impressive number, certainly.

But did they all use the building materials for their home repairs? That is a different question entirely. The terrible financial hardship and the lack of jobs are part of this equation. Many of those homeowners sold their construction materials on the black market for a higher price than what they had paid for them with donated funds.

Gaza residents who spoke on condition of anonymity say that the black market for construction materials in the Gaza Strip is growing at a rapid pace because the materials are being sold instead of used for renovations.

According to statistics of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Israel has brought 1.3 million tons of construction materials into the Gaza Strip since the end of the war — certainly a respectable amount. The material was intended for repairing homes that had been partially damaged and for rebuilding infrastructure.

So why has construction not begun on those 16,000 to 20,000 homes that were completely destroyed? That is due mainly to lack of funds, which were supposed to arrive from the donor countries.

According to statistics from the World Bank, slightly more than $960 million — only 27.5% of the $3.5 billion that various countries promised to give for the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip (as part of the summit on Gaza’s reconstruction that met in Cairo last October) — has been transferred.

Most of the money that did arrive came from Qatar, the United States and Germany. It was earmarked for the reconstruction of the partially damaged homes and for the rebuilding of ruined infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and roads.

But the delay in transferring the rest of the donated funds is making it difficult to move forward with the large residential projects intended to replace the homes that were completely destroyed.

To date, the construction of 14 residential buildings in Gaza has begun thanks to the money that has arrived so far.

A Palestinian man, wrapped in his national flag, inspects the rubble of destroyed buildings and houses in the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City, on July 28, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)
A Palestinian man, wrapped in his national flag, inspects the rubble of destroyed buildings and houses in the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City, on July 28, 2014. (AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)

Maybe this is the place to ask why the countries that promised to transfer donations to Gaza are not doing so. In this case there is no single, unequivocal answer. Some of the countries claim that they promised to transfer money to enable the Palestinian Authority to rebuild Gaza. But since the Palestinian Authority is absent from Gaza, they have no intention of donating the funds, which will end up in Hamas’s coffers sooner or later.

There is a fear that the money will not be used to rebuild Gaza, but will be put toward the purchase and production of arms instead. They fear this particularly since, with the Palestinian Authority inoperative in the Gaza Strip, there is no agency in place that can confirm where the money will go.

The countries’ message is that if Hamas wants the reconstruction to take place, it must give up its rule over the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority. The PA, which is in no hurry to return to Gaza, has made the deployment of its troops at the border crossings conditional upon Hamas’s complete renunciation of any presence at the border crossings, as well as the group giving up its armed wing.

But since Hamas has no intention of doing so anytime soon, it is doubtful whether the large-scale reconstruction will gather any momentum.

Palestinian workers rebuild the commercial center, destroyed by Israeli shelling during Operation Protective Edge, in Rafiah in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 20, 2015. The reconstruction is funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
Palestinian workers rebuild the commercial center, destroyed by Israeli shelling during Operation Protective Edge, in Rafiah in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 20, 2015. The reconstruction is funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

The reconstruction of the residential buildings is not the only problem Gaza’s residents face. The Hamas regime is trying to create revenue, mainly by imposing new taxes in various and odd ways.

The taxes may be imposed on new vehicles at one point, and on large companies at another. Just a few days ago, Hamas shut down the office of Jawwal, one of the top telecom companies in the Palestinian territories, for its refusal to pay a tax of one million shekels to the Hamas government (Jawwal pays taxes to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah).

Jawwal responded with sanctions of its own, ordering the closure of all its branches in the Gaza Strip, and Jawwal’s customers in Gaza have had no service since Monday.

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