Driven by hope, Gazans rebuild amid turmoil

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On this hill overlooking the Mediterranean, what remains of the largest Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip is largely piles of rubble and the skeletons of two synagogues.

But at the entrance to the former Neveh Dekelim settlement, where a commercial center, municipal hub, and schools were left standing when Israel left last August, the buildings are being converted into a new campus for Al-Aqsa University.

Already, explains the chief engineer overseeing the renovations, some 2,000 students come here every day to attend classes in subjects such as chemistry, biology, physics, and computer science.

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"I cannot find the words to express my happiness at being here. It's like [being] a mother who lost her son for more than 35 years and then she suddenly found him," says Mohammed Naji, as he walks a visitor through the flowering campus where the sound of sprinklers ticking over a newly planted garden competes with the clang of construction.

Though Mr. Naji lives nearby, during the Israeli occupation of Gaza he had never been able to step foot on this land. "These were forbidden places for us to go" he says.

After getting the go-ahead to start renovating, they began with the basics – replacing the windows and doors, all of which had been removed when Israel left. "When we first walked in here," says Naji, "it was a dead place: We got only walls."

At a time when violence is skyrocketing and the economy is plummeting, the transformation of the former Neveh Dekelim into a space for the public good is a rare auspicious story in a sea of uncertainty.

Elsewhere in Gaza, plans to rehabilitate the land that housed the 21 settlements evacuated in the course of that turbulent week last August have mostly foundered. Piles of rubble remain. A project to convert the former settlement of Morag into a new neighborhood of 3,000 housing units for lower-income Palestinians also failed to get off the ground, officials here say, for lack of cement and cash.

With the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) under an economic and diplomatic boycott because of its policy vis-à-vis Israel, grand plans for international donors to help build other housing and public-use projects are on the back burner for the foreseeable future. Simply getting funds into PA coffers has been difficult for the Hamas government. Twice last week, cabinet members were found to be carrying huge sums of cash – at least $24 million – in suitcases over the border from Egypt into Gaza. With many banking channels blocked, Hamas has no other way to pay bills and salaries.

Entrepreneurial risk

In the meantime, instead of thinking big, many Gazan entrepreneurs are thinking small – and beachfront. That was how Said Rabah and his brother came to the decision to rent a little piece of the oceanfront property that had been the settlement of Tel Katif and open a beachside cafe.

So far, they have invested $1,400 – proceeds from a family supermarket they run in town – to construct a beautiful, breezy cafe they named Al Jazeera, which means "the Island." (They picked the name for a large, nearby rock that can be seen when the tide is low, but also decided to snatch the logo of the famous Arabic satellite station for the welcome sign.)

But given the economic situation here, few people have funds to spare on visits to restaurants. Moreover, the brothers opened Al Jazeera on the same day, just over a week ago, as the major explosion on the beach, which killed seven members of the same family. Since then, they have received only a half-dozen customers.

"Business is pretty weak," complains Mr. Rabah, a sun-burnished, long-haired young man who looks like he could just as easily be a beach bum in Santa Monica, Calif., as an aspiring restaurateur in Dir el-Balah. "What happened to the family makes people afraid to go to the beach, because it could happen [again] at any time."

Even getting to the point of being able to open Al Jazeera along the oceanfront took him down a long road. He needed cement to make a set of steps from the road to the restaurant. But the cement was impossible to get because Karni, the main commercial crossing between Israel and Gaza, remained closed.

Despite the discouraging trickle of traffic, there is still an enthusiasm about Rabah when he compares this to how things looked a year ago, before the Israeli pullout. "This area was like a forbidden desert to us – no one was able to get close to it," he says. "Before, we only had a little part of the coast. Now we have all of it."

Rabah has hopes that when school gets out in a few weeks, business will start booming. For now, however, the only thing that is booming is the sound of shells hitting Gaza, mostly in the northern areas of Bet Lahiya. From there, militants have continued to launch Kassam rockets on the nearby Israeli town of Sderot. Many mornings, Gazans are also awakened by the frightening thunder of sonic booms caused by Israeli planes flying fast and low overhead.

Waiting on pay checks

Some Palestinians, of course, continue to come to the beach in spite of the dangers. But many of them, like the al-Akad family, don't have any excess cash to spend on cafes like Al Jazeera. Instead, they spend the afternoon lolling in the ocean, steering clear of all the new establishments along the waterfront that, last summer, was under the control of the Israeli military.

"What happened [to the Ghaliya family] makes us worry about coming to the sea, but what else should we do? Due to the economic crisis, we can't go to these cafes – then we'd have to pay for things and we don't have the money to buy things for each of the kids. No one has money now," says Hanadi al-Akad, a mother of three.

Her husband is a PA policeman, which means he has gone largely unpaid since March, a result of the Western economic boycott against the Hamas-led government. The family has been getting by by selling her dowry jewelry. This month, due to a payment of emergency international aid to the PA, he got 500 shekels, or about $112.

Soaking in the shore in her long, black hijab, Mrs. Akad says this is one of the few fun escapes she can offer her children. So she argued with her husband about coming here today until he relented.

"We don't have any public gardens or any places where we could go. The children have to do something – I don't want to impose my own siege on them," she says, using the term that many Palestinians employ for how they view the international community's policy of cutting off financial aid to the PA.

That policy has created some difficulties for the Al-Aqsa University campus on the former site of Neveh Dekelim, particularly when it comes to US funding. Naji, the head engineer, says that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), had promised to help with five projects here. All of them have been suspended pending a review of US-funded projects in the West Bank and Gaza following the January election victory of Hamas, designated by the State Department as a terrorist group.

Naji says that's a frustration, given that Al-Aqsa University, whose main campus is in Gaza City, is closely affiliated with Fatah. The school's rival institution, the Islamic University, is associated with Hamas. "It's a little disappointing that they took away funds because what we're building is not really for Fatah or Hamas: Anything we can build for the Palestinian people is an achievement." With the help of private funding, they're continuing to expand anyway. In two years, he says, they expect to be serving as many as 16,000 students.

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