Little hope for speedy reconstruction in Gaza
Riyad Mady cuts a forlorn figure as he looks at the land he once cultivated.
This was once prime farmland. Then in August, Israeli tanks rolled into al-Fokhary, a rural area in the southern Gaza Strip, and destroyed the crops. Since Israel’s summer war on Gaza, the 20 acres that used to produce 250 tonnes of tomatoes and 50 tonnes of onions lie barren.
"What did the tomatoes do, for the Israeli tanks to destroy them?" asked Mady, on whose agriculture business 18 workers relied to feed their families.
|What did the tomatoes do?
- Riyad Mady, farmer
The 45-year-old has tried to restart his farm by planting crops in the one area that emerged relatively unscathed. But it is a desperate measure by a desperate man.
"Who will compensate me? Who will help us get our lives back?"
Gaza remains in a desperate state almost three months after a ceasefire took hold and two weeks after a major international donor conference in Cairo saw pledges of $5.4 billion for the the strip's reconstruction. Little of that has been delivered so far and much of it was rehashed from earlier pledges or already due in the form of Palestinian Authority budget relief.
The losses suffered by Gaza's agricultural sector during the 2014 war are dramatic in their own right. According to the UNDP, Israeli military operations caused the destruction of greenhouses, farming infrastructure and widespread damage to crops such as Mady’s. Total estimated agriculture industry loss: $93 million.
But the farming business is a microcosm of the damage wrought on Gaza as a whole in an assault that left 2,205 Palestinians dead, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). More than 100,000 housing structures were damaged or destroyed, 500,000 people were displaced and more than 100,000 remain homeless. And winter is approaching.
|Until this summer's Israeli assault the Awda factory was one of Gaza's biggest. But it was badly damaged.|
Some 1,400 of those displaced now call the al-Mazraa al-Sharqiya girls' school in Deir al-Balah home. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school is teeming with people, many of whom are forced to sleep in its corridors.
"We can hardly sleep," Fathiya Abu Mohammad Abu Mhareb, 28, told al-Araby al-Jadeed as she stood chatting with a group of women in front of the corridor she now shares with them. "It's miserable."
Most of the people here used to live in the eastern Abuelajeen area of Deir al-Balah, which was badly damaged in August. They survive on UN food aid - canned beef, canned cheese, bread and some vegetables - but they are stuck. With their homes uninhabitable or destroyed, their fates rest on the delivery of reconstruction materials and a rebuilding programme.
Until then, they have nowhere to go and the school cannot operate.
And delivery of much-needed basic materials is being slowed by Israeli demands. UN organisations have agreed to an Israeli rule that cement imports are monitored by security cameras, even in warehouses where the cement is stored.
Israel says it needs to monitor the use of cement in Gaza so that it is not used to rebuild tunnels used by Palestinian fighters.
Abu Mohammad Ekhail owns such a warehouse in Gaza City. Pointing to the cameras he has installed he shrugged. "I have never lived in such circumstances. What are these cameras for?"
The surveillance, Palestinians agree, is simply a hindrance to effective delivery. Nabil Abu Moalek, the chairman of the Palestinian Contractors' Union in Gaza, says cement has been smuggled from Egypt for years, creating an over-priced black market.
Slowing construction material through Israeli crossings will not alter that, it will simply slow reconstruction, he said. Under the best of circumstances, said Abu Moalek, the reconstruction of Gaza would take years. With the current bureaucracy, "it could take five to 10".
Abu Moalek estimates that Gaza needs 1.5 million tonnes of cement. So far, says Ehkhail, only 440 tonnes of cement have been delivered since the Israeli assault ended. And until the construction materials arrive in serious quantities, a Gazan economy already suffering a 47 percent unemployment rate and a 60 percent poverty rate will offer little respite.
Reconstruction, said Mohammad Atelbany, remains talk until there is "real action". Atelbany ran one of Gaza's biggest factories, the Awda factory, which produced wafers and biscuits before the summer assault. The factory, about 2km inside Gaza, suffered extensive damage from Israeli shelling. It now functions only at 40 percent capacity and he estimates his losses at $24 million so far.
And the losses keep accruing. Unable to rebuild damaged walls and rooftops, machinery is exposed to the elements. During recent storms, he had to cover his machines with plastic to protect them from the rain. He said he had fixed some parts of the buildings, but with black-market cement at black-market prices.
"Until the siege ends, there can be no normality," said Atelbany, who now only employs a handful of a once 400-strong workforce. "Until reconstruction starts, and I can borrow from trusted sources, I can’t run this factory.
Grief and anger
|Samya al-Qayed now lives in a UN school after her house was destroyed in Israel's assault on Gaza this summer.
She also lost two children. Here she tells her story.
Back at the UNRWA school, Samya al-Qayed was getting angry. "We do not want food and shelter. We want dignity. We want a better life for our children."
The 48-year-old lost two of her nine children in the assault. Walaa, 15, and Ahmad, 11, had gone out during a temporary ceasefire on 24 July to fetch some clothes for the family. An Israeli army unit was stationed on top of a nearby hill.
"The soldiers saw them," Qayed said. "Yet they were killed by a drone." She stopped and showed al-Araby al-Jadeed a lock of Walaa's hair before she explained how her son's fate remained unknown for 10 days. The Israeli army had apparently taken the child to a hospital in southern Israel. Only when they transferred the body to al-Shifa hospital in Gaza did the family learn he had died.
Raed Alneefy has become the main contact between the displaced families in al-Mazraa al-Sharqiya. He has had to plead with UN officials who in September wanted to evacuate the families.
"The people here simply don't have anywhere to go," he said. "And they won't have anywhere to go until reconstruction starts."
There will be no problem evacuating people then, he said.
"We all want to leave. This is an unbearable life."