Still waiting for homes in Gaza

Two years after Israel's war with Hamas, Palestinians stuck in temporary lodging

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Nashat Nawati jostled his way through a scrum of two dozen fellow Gazans outside the Hamas housing ministry, hoping to get word about when he can expect to return home.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/08/2016 (2237 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Nashat Nawati jostled his way through a scrum of two dozen fellow Gazans outside the Hamas housing ministry, hoping to get word about when he can expect to return home.

In the summer of 2014, the four-storey building where Nawati lived with his extended family was reduced to rubble by Israeli bombs during a six-week war with Hamas. Two years later, Nawati and his six children are stuck in temporary quarters half the size of his old apartment as they wait to get foreign aid needed to rebuild.

“I lost my lovely big house in the last war,” said Nawati, 48, an unemployed government clerk with worn clothes and a look of anguish on his face.

ADEL HANA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES People walk by rubble in the Shijaiyah neighbourhood of Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip in October 2014.

“Since then, my family and I live in a small, old rented flat that does not meet our basic needs.”

Nawati is one of about 75,000 Gazans still displaced from their homes as a US$3.5-billion effort to rebuild Gaza from the destruction of the war creeps along at a pace officials say has fallen years behind schedule.

Israeli, Palestinian and international officials worry the economic and humanitarian blight in the isolated coastal territory will ensure continued instability and a new war may only be a matter of time. Last year, the United Nations warned Gaza may become uninhabitable by 2020 if there is no change in the economic situation.

“Gaza’s reconstruction is going way too slow. Momentum has been lost and needs to be regained,” said Hans Jacob, Norway’s ambassador to the Palestinian territories at an April seminar on the effort. “The situation in Gaza is as catastrophic as ever.”

The rebuilding task is daunting. Gaza’s power lines and the territory’s sole power plant were hit during the war, leading to rolling power cuts of 12 to 18 hours a day on an electricity grid capable of supplying only half of the territory’s needs.

The power shortage has hobbled Gaza’s sewage-treatment plant, sending about 91 million litres of raw sewage into the sea daily and creating a stifling stench along the coast. Schools, businesses, farms and medical centres also sustained tens of millions of dollars in damage.

There are multiple headwinds holding up the massive project: the Hamas-controlled territory of 1.8 million Palestinians is hemmed in by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, and building materials such as cement have been in short supply; a UN-run system that gives Israel oversight over the distribution of construction supplies has been criticized for slowing rebuilding with too much red tape.

The biggest problem, the UN says, is funding shortfalls. Only about 50 per cent of promised donor aid — about US$1.4 billion — was disbursed as of the end of March, the latest World Bank report states. Among large donors, the U.S. had transferred all of the US$200 million it pledged, but Persian Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had transferred only 15 per cent or less of their pledges.

Nawati visits the Gaza housing ministry twice a month to check for any word of progress on the rebuilding of his home. The arrival of a new infusion of reconstruction aid from Kuwait in May briefly lifted his spirits, giving him hope some of it would finally be earmarked for his building — but he left with a familiar answer.

“They said, ‘You’re not on the list,’” Nawati said.

“’There’s no estimate on when your house is going to be built.’”

From the housing ministry, Nawati took a reporter to his home in Shajaiya, a district on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City — a site of fierce fighting in 2014 because Hamas used buildings there to mask the openings of tunnels under the border with Israel less than 1.6 kilometres away. Swaths of homes were left in ruins.

Rubble from Nawati’s old home has long since been cleared away, like many places in Gaza that sustained damage. Now there’s just an empty lot with a small tent where residents and relatives from the neighbourhood gather to sip tea with mint leaves.

“My kids used to play here with their friends. The mosque where I used to pray was on that corner,” he said.

“Now my kids are dealing with the frustration of living far from their relatives and neighbours.”

Not far away, Nawati’s brother Nihad busied himself by working on a vegetable garden. The construction worker — who lived in the same apartment building as his brother — complained he had no work because of a shortage of building materials prompted by Israel’s six-week ban on cement in April.

‘What has been built is only a drop in the ocean of destruction’

“I’ve built most of the houses in this neighbourhood, but unfortunately today I am unable to do any renovation work,” said Nihad, 39.

The lack of building materials and restrictions on generators and heavy machinery are also hobbling the rebuilding. The Israeli human rights not-for-profit organization Gisha said from the end of the war through the end of 2015, only about 14 per cent of the construction materials needed to rebuild Gaza made it through to the area.

Israeli officials say the restrictions are designed to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its military infrastructure in Gaza, especially the cross-border tunnels used to infiltrate southern Israel during the 2014 war. The director general of Israel’s foreign ministry in May accused Hamas of diverting 95 per cent of cement shipments destined for rebuilding.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it was in Israel’s interest to help solve Gaza’s water and electricity shortfalls because they create humanitarian problems that “don’t stop at the fences.”

Some progress has been made. Prefabricated mobile homes that were delivered to Gaza immediately after the war have since been removed after some residents were able to return home. Rubble cleared from buildings has been used to pave new roads, including a new four-lane highway from Gaza City to Rafah.

“What has been built is only a drop in the ocean of destruction,” said Palestinian Housing Minister Mofeed Hasaina.

The UN says it will take Gaza’s economy another two years to return to the point where it was before the war.

Unemployment among Gaza’s youth is estimated at 60 per cent.

Gazans blame everyone for the bleak state of affairs: the Israeli military, which keeps the territory under a strict blockade; Arab governments, which have not sent pledged aid on time; and even their own leaders.

In private conversations in cafés and on social media, Gazans say they’re worried Hamas’s effort to rebuild its cross-border attack tunnels will one day bring new Israeli destruction to border areas such as Shajaiya. They also gripe the Gaza government has prioritized rebuilding homes of Hamas insiders and mosques.

“There’s great corruption in the reconstruction,” said Nawati. “Why is my house not there? I haven’t gotten a clear answer.”

— Los Angeles Times

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