‘We lost everything.’ Gazans looking to rebuild see only obstacles.

Felipe Dana/AP
Palestinian flags wave atop buildings heavily damaged by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, June 5, 2021, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip.

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According to the United Nations, in the 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Gazans saw 1,200 housing units destroyed and 15,000 homes damaged. Electricity cuts have forced offices and businesses that survived Israeli strikes to shutter, and drinking water is in short supply.

The Biden administration is pushing for reconstruction, and Egypt and Qatar have already pledged $1 billion. But amid wrangling among Palestinian factions, Israel, and regional powers, Gazans’ ability to rebuild and start anew is being held hostage to politics and security concerns.

Why We Wrote This

How do you recover from war when the rebuilding itself is political? That’s the plight of Gazans who lost homes and livelihoods in the short Hamas-Israel conflict but face barriers on the long path ahead.

In early May, Mohammed Sultan was anticipating a June wedding, and for the past two years he has been building a small apartment above his parents’ home in Gaza City in preparation. Yet all was lost when his family’s home was hit by an Israeli missile strike. He says he is “not hopeful” that international pledges will result in widespread reconstruction, let alone help him rebuild his home.

His wedding, for now, is off. “My dream was about to come true,” Mr. Sultan says. “I promised my fiancée that we will soon be together after two years of waiting. ... But now I have no words to tell her.”

Ever since Mahmoud Abed’s family home in the Maghazi refugee camp was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike May 16, he has been consumed by one task: a search for housing.

He and his brothers search daily for apartments for rent in Gaza for their four families.

But there are few available flats for displaced Gazans in the besieged coastal enclave, which according to the United Nations saw 1,200 housing units destroyed and 15,000 homes damaged in the recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

Why We Wrote This

How do you recover from war when the rebuilding itself is political? That’s the plight of Gazans who lost homes and livelihoods in the short Hamas-Israel conflict but face barriers on the long path ahead.

Even before the war, most rents ranged from $150 to $215 a month, large sums in Gaza, where prewar unemployment stood at 50% and 1 in 2 Gazans lived in poverty, relying on less than $4.30 per day including humanitarian assistance, according to the World Bank.

Electricity cuts also have forced many offices and businesses that survived Israeli missile strikes to shutter, while drinking water is in short supply.

Yet for now, despite $1 billion in pledges by Egypt and Qatar and a push for a reconstruction process by the Biden administration, rebuilding is not an option.

“Previous attacks on Gaza were always followed with a protracted and bitter reconstruction” that never materialized, says Mr. Abed, who is sleeping in relatives’ living rooms. “I am not hopeful at all.”

As wrangling among Palestinian factions, Israel, and regional powers over Gaza’s reconstruction continues, Gazans’ ability to rebuild and start anew is being held hostage to politics and security concerns. And with current border restrictions and previous frustrated reconstruction efforts fresh in their minds, Gazans say they do not dare to “dream.”

“I am particularly afraid that the complicated political reality will lengthen the construction process,” says Khalil El-Ashi, whose women’s clothing store in central Gaza once employed three people.

It was destroyed in a missile strike on a commercial building. With the recent losses, it would cost him $180,000 to start again.

“We have lost everything; we must be compensated as soon as possible,” Mr. El-Ashi says, stressing that Gazans do not care about regional politics. “All we want is to rebuild our life and have a new beginning.”

Dispute over materials

To start rebuilding roads, water networks, hospitals, and homes for the 70,000 displaced Gazans, engineers and contractors say they are in desperate need of concrete, steel, and water pipes – all materials that must be imported over the Gaza Strip’s three border crossing points with Israel. The Rafah crossing with Egypt is designed for passenger traffic; talks with Cairo are ongoing to allow fuel to enter the Strip.

But an agreement on reconstruction and the import of materials into Gaza is currently held up by the potential role of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the territory and traded rocket fire with Israel in a conflict sparked by tensions in Jerusalem. More than 250 people were killed in the fighting, the vast majority of them in Gaza.

Israel and the United States fear that the militant group could use materials and funds to rearm and rebuild its military network, and instead want the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, to carry out the rebuild. Israel also demands that Hamas release two Israeli civilian hostages.

As a way forward, Western diplomats point to the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism – a temporary agreement between Israel and the Palestinian government brokered by the U.N. following an even lengthier and costlier Israel-Hamas war in 2014. The agreement paved the way for the entry of 3.4 million tons of construction materials for 600 large-scale projects and new homes for nearly 140,000 people.

Yet international aid agencies and Gazans say the post-2014 rebuild was constrained by several factors: Israel’s limits on so-called dual-use materials seen as having potential military application; Israeli vetoes on projects; and delays that saw one-year security clearance approvals on materials lapse before they ever arrived in Gaza. Many projects were still incomplete when the 2021 war broke out, according to Oxfam.  

Gazans say the restrictions on potential dual-use materials have hampered any type of construction in the blockaded Strip for a decade, and that any setback or damage to homes takes years to repair if they can be repaired at all.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Building equipment, sent by Egypt for Palestinians, arrives in the southern Gaza Strip, June 4, 2021.

Wedding plans

It is an obstacle faced by Mohammed Sultan, who in early May was anticipating a June wedding and who for the past two years has been building a small apartment above his parents’ home in Gaza City in preparation.

He built in fits and starts when construction materials were available and he had the needed funds. As his wedding date neared, he carefully picked out furniture for the new home, including a bedroom and living-room set.

All was lost when his family’s home was hit by an Israeli missile strike in May. The family fled when their neighborhood came under attack. When they came back, their home was gone.

“My dream was about to come true. I was about to start a family with my fiancée,” Mr. Sultan says, “but this has been all blown away with the wind.”

Having a home to move into, sometimes even owning a home, is often a prerequisite for marriage for many families and communities in the Arab world, including in Gaza.

With the outbreak of war, Mr. Sultan’s family took refuge in a nearby hospital and has since been staying with relatives, unable to find permanent housing.

“I promised my fiancée that we will soon be together after two years of waiting and working on our apartment,” he says. “But now I have no words to tell her.”

Pledges, not progress

Palestinian infighting is also delaying the rebuild. Hamas’ rival Fatah, which controls the PA, insists that the Authority is the only “legitimate Palestinian actor” to carry out rebuilding, despite its being absent from the Strip since fighting with Hamas in 2007 led to its expulsion.

Hamas, meanwhile, has vowed that it “will not take a single cent” of reconstruction money.

Rather than the Fatah-dominated PA, Hamas wants an independent commission to carry out the reconstruction. The two factions have even carried out rival estimates of the damage caused to the Strip, placed between $300 million and $400 million.

Where those sums will come from is also a fraught issue. Qatar, the only Arab state with diplomatic ties with Hamas, has pledged $500 million for Gaza’s reconstruction. 

Egypt, in a first, also promised $500 million to rebuild its neighbor Gaza, dispatching the head of Egypt’s security services to meet with Hamas last week and an engineering team to survey damage. But there is a catch to Cairo’s pledge: Only Egyptian firms can take part in its funded rebuilding.

Egyptian engineering teams and heavy equipment have crossed into Gaza and are helping municipalities remove rubble and debris, and both Gazans and Hamas are welcoming the badly needed Egyptian assistance.

Yet Gazans remain skeptical that Arab states’ promises will result in reconstruction and change on the ground.

“We lost everything”

At the Maghazi camp, Mr. Abed’s family lost their savings – gold and jewelry stashed away by his wife, Riham, which they had planned to sell to pay for fertility treatment to finally start a family.

“My heart broke when I saw my husband searching through the rubble, hoping to find any of our savings. All he could find was 13 shekels [$4],” Riham says.

Mr. Abed, his wife, and extended family are now living on the only aid readily distributed in the enclave: flour and sugar.

“Who will compensate us?” Mr. Abed says of pledges by Arab and Western states. “We have lost everything.”

Mr. Sultan, the brokenhearted groom, says he is “not hopeful” that international pledges will result in widespread reconstruction, let alone help him rebuild his home. His wedding, for now, is off.

“They destroyed my life along with that little apartment,” he says.

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