In Gaza, a family wonders how to rebuild

Ilene R. Prusher/Staff
Ashraf and Nadia Ziad and their three children have been living in this UN classroom since Jan. 5th. On Friday, they were told to vacate to make way for school, which is expected to go back into session across Gaza on Saturday. But the family has no idea where they'll go. Their house was destroyed by Israeli shells during the war, which came to a tentative ceasefire last Sunday.

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP – While several thousand Palestinians remain homeless or otherwise displaced, the competition for hearts and minds that has plagued and propelled Palestinian politics over the past 20 years is palpably shaping how quickly Gaza will be rebuilt – and by whom.

As average people struggle to pick up the pieces and survive the winter, their leaders are scrambling for the right to put this shell-shocked coastal strip on the road to reconstruction. A shaky cease-fire – which will be a week old on Sunday - looked likely to hold.

Hamas, which says it is ready to take charge of reconstruction, plans to begin distributing $35 million to $40 million in assistance this Sunday to Gazans affected by the war, a spokesman said.

But Israel argues that international assistance must go through aid agencies and that the local partner in this effort should be the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA), which Hamas overthrew 1-1/2 years ago.

Ashraf Ziad, who fled his home in Bet Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, counts himself as one of the early recipients of Hamas aid. Mr. Ziad, his wife Nadia, and their three small children fled their village, which had already been under continued bombardment, when the Israeli army dropped a snowstorm of leaflets warning that the area would soon be bombed. Militants frequently use the northernmost parts of Gaza to launch Qassam and Grad rockets at communities inside Israel.

When the couple went back to their home after the cease-fire, they found rubble. "We couldn't even pull a mattress out from beneath it all," Nadia says, trying to calm her children, who keep crying for their toys and have been wearing the same clothes for two weeks.

Hamas officials came by, registered them as the owners of a destroyed house, and gave them emergency funds. "Hamas guys were moving between the homes and they gave me $500 to cope for now, and said, 'buy necessities for your children, and as for the home itself, we'll compensate you later,' " Ziad says.

It was enough to purchase a few things: a mattress or two, basic food and drink. But it hasn't taken them far. They are living in a UN school here in Gaza City, where families have been taking shelter at about 30 to a room. They were told on Friday that they would have to evacuate for classes set to resume on Saturday for the some 200,000 students. Hours before their departure, they still weren't sure where they would go.

Ziad – who was a policeman in the Fatah security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, which were overrun in June 2007 – says Hamas's payout didn't signficantly sway him.

"I don't care who's going to compensate me, but if they ask me, of course, I'd choose UNRWA [the main United Nations aid agency to the Palestinians] because they're the only ones who will distribute the aid fairly." All of the aid coming through one political faction, be it Fatah or Hamas, he says, would be disastrous.

"Without national reconciliation, without all the factions coming together, reconstruction won't happen," he says. "Sooner or later, we'll need cement and materials to rebuild, and we won't be able to get that without Israel, because Israel controls the crossings."

In other words, he says, Hamas won't be able to rebuild Gaza without some degree of partnership with Fatah.

Ahmed Yousef, the foreign-policy adviser of the Hamas government, says that Hamas is not opposed to working with Fatah. "[E]veryone should exert the utmost efforts to rebuild Gaza, every Arab and every Muslim," Dr. Yousef says. "Fatah is one of many Palestinian political factions. We are at odds with them now, but it doesn't mean that they are our enemies."

Yousef expects that the calm will hold beyond Sunday, when the week-long cease-fire that Israel and Hamas declared – independently of one another – effectively expires.

But part of Hamas's demand for holding its fire was that Israel would open all of the crossings into the Gaza Strip. That has not happened, but assistance has been flowing into Gaza in the past few days, both in the form of needed goods and an influx of aid workers.

On Wednesday and Thursday, aid continued to trickle through the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

On Friday, Israel opened the Erez crossing fully for the first time in about two months, allowing all international journalists and aid workers free access to Gaza. Other trucks carrying commercial goods and humanitarian assistance have been coming in through the Karni and Kerem Shalom crossings.

Still, thousands remained homeless or otherwise displaced. More than half a million residents of the Gaza Strip, about a third of the population, have no access to clean water, according to a report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

By the end of the week, there were more than 18,000 people housed in about 30 shelters, down from 50,000 people at the height of the war. A study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found that about 4,000 residences were totally destroyed in the war, and another 17,000 buildings and housing units were partially destroyed. According to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, some 90,000 Gazans were displaced as part of the war.

As aid trucks continued to enter Gaza from both Israel and Egypt, there were occasional reports of militants commandeering them. Armed men seized a Jordanian aid convoy after it entered the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing on Tuesday. UNRWA had expected to receive the convoy and unload it into its warehouses in Gaza, the Jordanian news agency Petra reported. Militants opened fire on the drivers and forced them to head to their own warehouses.

Jordanians were disappointed by the confiscation of the aid they had collected in support of Palestinian civilian victims of the war.

"There's no real government from what we see, and there are a lot of gangsters around, and they can take the aid meant for the people," says Tariq Masarweh, a columnist for Al Rai, a newspaper in Amman, Jordan.

"It's very unfortunate, because those things should go to poor people, to the refugees. We had collected aid from Syrian and Lebanese organizations as well and we were sending all of that aid to Gaza with our aid, because we're the only bridge for these countries to the Palestinians," Mr. Masarweh says.

Hamas may have suffered a severe blow as part of the military operation, but it will likely use this situation to gain popularity with average people, Masarweh said in an interview in Amman, particularly if it is able to spearhead post-war reconstruction.

"Similar to Hezbollah's war with Israel in 2006, this situation will give Hamas an opportunity to celebrate victory," he says.

Yousef, of Hamas, says the organization already views itself as triumphant. "We don't feel we've been defeated," Yousef said in a talk with a few visiting reporters in Rafah, where green Hamas flags few along the traffic divide. "We've shown that we will challenge the Israeli military might and survive."

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