Editor's note: This story was updated at 6:34 p.m. EST.
Israeli missiles have hit Mahmoud Haj Salama’s neighborhood more than 10 times in the past 10 days, but he has stayed put – even as hundreds of homes around him have been destroyed.
“For me, home is the safest place even if it might be damaged or destroyed. Many people were killed while shopping, playing football, or even driving,” says the father of seven. “I wish I had a shelter or a basement under my home.”
The lack of bomb shelters in Gaza stands in stark contrast with Israel, which has invested heavily in such protection since the 1991 Gulf War. While Hamas has built an extensive underground network of tunnels and bunkers since 2009, after its first conflict with Israel, as well as hundreds of smuggling tunnels, no apparent effort has been made to protect civilians from Israeli air raids.
The proffered reasons range from a lack of building materials to a culture of martyrdom that welcomes death. As with most things Middle Eastern, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Although some religious Muslims welcome death in a conflict with Israel, believing that being killed by a Jew is a sure ticket to paradise, the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza don’t seek death. If they had shelters, they would undoubtedly use them, even though many believe that you can’t escape fate in an underground bunker.
However, building bomb shelters for more than 1.7 million people from scratch would be a massive logistical challenge – just ask Israel – but especially for a government that is chronically in the red and doesn’t control its borders.
Billions of shekels required
Since 1992, after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein rained Scud missiles on Israel, every new Israeli home has been required to have secure areas. Such private shelters, which consist of concrete and iron rods, can cost as much as 70,000 to 100,000 shekels ($20,000 to $29,000). In addition, the Israeli government offers incentives for contractors to add bomb shelters onto older buildings, in exchange for free rights to develop two-and-a-half additional floors.
Today, after billions of shekels of government investment, roughly two-thirds of Israelis have access to secure areas that protect against the fallout of rocket fire, though most could not withstand direct hits. In cities close to Gaza, such as Ashkelon, the rate is as high as 85 percent. When rockets manage to slip through Iron Dome, shelters play a crucial role in protecting against fatal shrapnel and other fallout.
If Gaza’s leadership were able to replicate such civilian infrastructure, would it be able to achieve similar protection in the face of Israel’s military superiority?
“If there is a direct [Israeli] hit … the shelter will not stand,” says Lt. Col. Avi Bitzur (res.), former head of the Israeli military’s fortifications branch. “If [the munitions] will fall next to the shelter, it can stand against it.”
From an urban planning perspective, it would be feasible to build an extensive network of civilian shelters in Gaza despite the outdated infrastructure, says Bitzur, who now serves as deputy head of Homefront Defense Studies at Beit Berl College.
But financially it is unworkable, he says.
“It’s too much expense, too much to do it now. You cannot give now a shelter for 1.5 million people,” he says, estimating that it would require billions of shekels and at least five to six years.
Cement diverted to underground tunnels
It would also require a great deal of cement. Israel has restricted the import of cement for years since it can be used to bolster underground tunnels used for smuggling and storing weapons, and for launching cross-border attacks on Israel – as some Hamas operatives attempted to do today.
“For the amount of cement that they used to build their bunkers and underground tunnels, which you can drive trucks through, they could have made for every single person and every single house a bomb shelter,” says Alan Marcus, director of strategic planning for the city of Ashkelon, who initiated a sister-city partnership with the Gaza municipality during the 1990s, which has since fallen apart.
Hamas’s military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, has a special “tunnels battalion” responsible for digging and building such tunnels. It’s very clandestine and even many Qassam commandos don’t know who belongs to it, according to an Al-Qassam member. Some have been killed by tunnel cave-ins as well as by Israeli airstrikes while underground.
Political analyst Mustafa Sawwaf says they serve not as safe havens but a key part of Hamas’s defense of civilians because of the tunnels’ utility in attacking Israel.
“The resistance groups have built hundreds or maybe thousands of bunker and tunnels that are used … by the armed factions to stock up weapons and launch rockets,” says Mr. Sawwaf. “Tunnels and bunkers are war tactics that have proved great success during the ongoing and the previous offensives.”
Hamas has failed to create any substantial damage in Israel in this round however, with the exception of a man killed by a mortar this week, while Israel’s more than 1,800 airstrikes have killed more than 200 Palestinians so far.
UN schools provide shelter
Some 22,000 people are taking refuge in 24 shelters run by the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA. Israel has the coordinates of all the facilities to avoid hitting them, although that did not prevent a hit on a UN facility with white phosphorous in the 2009 war.
The IDF says that while they take a series of measures to avoid civilian casualties, doing so is extremely difficult when militants embed themselves in civilian areas. This week UNRWA found 20 rockets during a routine inspection of one of its schools, which it strongly condemned, calling on all parties to preserve the "sanctity" of its premises for those in need.
“Whenever there is a war or clashes near the fence, I take my sons and grandchildren and head towards a United Nation-run school because it is safer than anywhere else in Gaza,” says Sabiha Attar of Beit Lahiya, taking refuge in Gaza City. “I know the school is just like my home – it’s built of concrete and Israeli missiles can destroy it – but Israel cannot kill us inside a UN school, this will be a big scandal.”
She points out that residents have sought shelter at UN schools since Israel occupied the territory in 1967. “Maybe this is why we don't have war shelters, the UN schools can replace them," she says.
But for Mr. Salama, the father of seven, there’s no place better than his house.
“The one who said, 'Home sweet home,' did not lie,” he says, adding with a smile that a strike on his home could pave the way for a better one. “We will wait, if an Israeli [strike] destroys it, I will ask my brothers to build a shelter."