Gaza misery

War punishes Gaza

Half a year after devastating hostilities, life in the region seems worse than ever. Thousands remain displaced, internal violence is increasing – and Hamas is preparing for battle

Published on February 13, 2015

In Khan Younis, Gaza Strip

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 homes damaged and 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.

Above: Zahar Khafanah tries to blow life into a tiny fire to use to cook for her children in her destroyed home in the Gaza Strip. Despite the damage, the family says they have no other option but to stay.

The economy is in deep recession; pledges of billions in aid have not been honored; and the Islamist 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.”

Members of the Khassi family sit around a fire inside their damaged home.

Thousands displaced

At night, Gaza twinkles with thousands of campfires. Electricity is often available only six hours a day.

Some 10,000 Gaza residents are still sleeping on the floors of United Nations-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 5-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 Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, almost 70 percent 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 program 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 demilitarization, Herzog said Gaza needs a kind of “mini-Marshall Plan” akin to the U.S. program that rebuilt the ravaged economies of Europe after World War II.

With great fanfare, donors promised at a conference in Cairo in October to give $5.4 billion to the Palestinians, much of it for reconstruction. But virtually none of the pledges has been honored, according to U.N. officials in Gaza.

Palestinian brothers Achmed and Hussama Kafana, ages 5 and 7, use the top of an umbrella as a prayer mat in the ruins of the Omar Abed El Aziz Mosque in Beit Hanoun during Friday prayers. The mosque was damaged during the war.

‘A dirty diaper’

One reason for the reluctance to deliver funds is the Islamist militant movement Hamas, which retains control of Gaza and its 1.8 million residents.

In joining a “unity government” last year, Hamas 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 Hamas 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.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman predicted last week that another war with Hamas is “inevitable.” Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in six years.

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 dueling governments for inaction, as well as the United Nations, Egypt and Israel.

Islamists who consider Hamas too moderate tried to storm the French cultural center 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 U.N. compound and threatened 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 programs in Gaza, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Abbas and his government see the strip as “a dirty diaper. No one wants to touch it.”

LEFT: Palestinian electrician Awad Habib climbs down a utility pole after fixing a street lamp among the rubble of homes in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza City. The light is near his daughter’s home. RIGHT: A Palestinian man works on what was once the top floor of a home in Beit Hanoun.

‘It won’t get better’

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.

During the summer war, he said, Israeli tanks left trails across his farm. The family home is in ruins, leveled by Israeli sappers, the farmer 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 pointed. “The Jews will be back.” After previous wars, he said he always expected life would get better, at least for a little while.

Now? “It won’t get better,” he said.

Imports restricted

Israel has maintained a partial trade and travel blockage against Gaza since Hamas took over in 2007. These days, in a deal struck between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations after the war, families and their dwellings are assessed for damage by the U.N., lists are provided to the Israeli military for clearance, and truckloads of aggregate, steel bars and cement and 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.

Video: Gaza from above

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Aerial footage of al-Shejaiya taken during a drone flight.

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.”

An Israeli military intelligence officer said in an interview that Hamas is already manufacturing rockets “as fast they can.” This week, the Israeli navy intercepted three Hamas affiliates trying to smuggle rocket-making materials from Egypt by sea. Since the war ended, militants in Gaza have fired three rockets at Israel.

‘Ice cream will have to wait’

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 U.N., NGOs, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas,” said executive manager Manil Hassan.

The company estimated the damages at $24 million. They tried to sue in Israeli courts but were denied jurisdiction. Hassan said they could rebuild, if Israel would allow spare parts and a couple of Italian and Danish technicians to visit.

“We need them to show us how to fix their stuff,” Hassan said, referring to the factory’s foreign-made equipment.

The factory has restarted two assembly lines to make cookies but is operating at one-third capacity.

“Ice cream will have to wait,” she said.

Sundown’s fading light shows the destruction in the Sha’af neighborhood of Gaza City after the summer war between Israel and Hamas.

Feeling trapped

Palestinians in Gaza say they are trapped now more than ever in what they call an open-air prison. Israel restricts exits, allowing medical patients, business traders and some special humanitarian cases to cross.

For Gazans, the main portal to the greater world is the Rafah crossing into Egypt, which has been mostly closed since the summer war.

Mohammed Abu Anza, 19, was trying last month to get to the Cairo airport. He was awarded a scholarship to study engineering at a university in Algeria. He tried and failed to get out in October.

At the end of January, the crossing was open for just three days. Desperate travelers pressed onto the buses to make it to the Egyptian side.

On the third day, Anza won a seat on the tenth bus in line to leave. The Egyptians only allowed seven buses that day. Anza said he would try again, but he turned away, because it looked like he wanted to cry.

Hazam Balousha contributed to this report.

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