Driven by hope, Gazans rebuild amid turmoil
KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
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."