With no quick fix in sight, Gazans wait amid the ruins

Each morning, Thaeer Alsheikh sits beside the ruins of his family's two-story house, destroyed by Israeli forces in the final days of the 22-day Gaza Strip offensive in the winter.

He can't explain why he comes. He doesn't do anything while here. He says it just makes him feel better.

His extended family, now sharing a rented apartment nearby, recently gave the children a choice: spend the weekend at the beach or hang out next to the rubble. The kids opted for a picnic at the homestead, now a pile of broken concrete and twisted metal.

"I guess we like to return to the place where we grew up," said Alsheikh, 27, who has built a sitting area next to the ruins with a "sofa" of broken bricks covered by plastic sheeting held by columns salvaged from the second-story balcony.

"This is still my home," he said. "Someday we will rebuild, but so far there is no hope."

More than six months after a cease-fire ended the Israeli assault on this enclave controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas, little rebuilding is underway for the approximately 6,300 homes destroyed or heavily damaged.

About 30,000 people remain affected, United Nations and nongovernmental aid groups estimate. Most have moved in with family members or into temporary rentals, but some are still living in tents and trailers with no water or electricity.

Only a fraction of the $4 billion in pledged international aid, including $900 million from the U.S., has been distributed, officials here say. That's partly because donors are reluctant to release the money as long as Hamas is in control. It's also because of the blockade by Israel and Egypt, which has restricted the borders and, Palestinians and aid groups say, is preventing the 1.5 million people in Gaza from receiving much beyond basic food and medical aid.

The blockade, which was designed to diminish Hamas' capacity to launch attacks against Israel, includes cement, glass, steel piping and other construction material, and also has prevented a variety of household goods and food items from passing Gaza's checkpoints, including coffee, tea, lightbulbs, crayons, blankets and hair conditioner.

U.N. agencies say that even though 80% of the population is dependent on their food and medical aid, they are helpless to assist in rebuilding. Only about 75 U.N. food trucks are permitted into the strip each day, compared with 400 before the blockade began, U.N. officials say.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which assists the displaced Palestinians here, has earmarked nearly $1 billion to rebuild Gaza homes, including about $370 million for emergency repairs and renovations, said Chris Gunness, a U.N. spokesman.

International "donors have given us the money, but we're not able to do anything with it," he said.

On Tuesday, U.N. and other aid groups called on Israel to make an exception to the blockade for schools. They said nearly half of Gaza's schools had suffered damage -- including 18 that were destroyed -- but students are still having to crowd into the remaining classrooms or study in alternating morning and afternoon shifts.

Restrictions on Gaza have been in place since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the strip from its rival Palestinian party, Fatah. Members of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, won parliamentary elections in Gaza in 2006, after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the territory a year earlier.

But the blockade has become more painful in the aftermath of Israel's winter offensive, during which 13 Israelis and as many as 1,400 Palestinians were killed and much of Gaza's manufacturing base was destroyed.

Israel, alarmed by the Hamas takeover in Gaza, launched the attack in response to the repeated firing of rockets from the seaside strip targeting civilian neighborhoods of southern Israel.

The Israeli government also blames Hamas for the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held for three years.

Though Israelis this week said they planned to allow a limited amount of cement into Gaza to repair electricity or sewage plants, they say general restrictions on cement and steel pipes will remain because such materials can be used by Hamas to build bunkers, tunnels and bombs.

"The entry of 'dual-use' equipment -- equipment which while intended for use by civilian systems can be exploited by terrorists -- has been prevented, with the exception of special humanitarian cases," said Maj. Guy Inbar, an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman.

He said exceptions are sometimes made for medicine, toys and hygiene products. But "gourmet items" are blocked because the Israeli government contends that they will not be consumed by average Palestinians, but "by the rich and corrupt leaders of Hamas."

Gazans say that without enough cement and steel to rebuild, they'll never be able to resume normal lives.

"I lived through the 1967 [Middle East] war, but I've never seen days like this before," said Souad Abdrabo, 53, who said her home was destroyed in the winter by Israeli bulldozers. Now she and her husband are sleeping under a canopy on foam mattresses next to the rubble because they say they can't find an apartment.

Like many here, the couple received more than $5,000 cash for emergency aid from U.N. and other groups. They also own a plot of vacant land they could use to rebuild. But without materials and supplies, they can only wait.

"We're being wiped out in front of the eyes of the world and nobody cares," she said.

She and others say Hamas shares the blame for failing to protect and support the population. She said she recently shooed away Hamas fighters from her neighborhood because she feared they would attract the attention of Israelis, who accuse Hamas of hiding its military branch in civilian neighborhoods. Hamas assistance for those affected by the war, some say, has been focused on the group's members. "They only help their own," said one homeowner.

A Hamas spokesman did not return phone calls for comment.

Some families are so desperate to rebuild that they've starting making bricks from mud and clay, a practice not seen here in half a century.

"Mud is no solution," Alsheikh said. "Are we supposed to go back 50 years?"

The blockade has fueled a thriving black market of goods smuggled from Egypt through a long-standing network of tunnels. As a result, some signs of normality have returned. In Gaza City, cafes serve espresso and pastries. Ice cream vendors are open along the shores. Fruits and vegetables are available.

But prices are out of reach for many families in the Gaza Strip, where most live below the poverty line. A smuggled bag of cement, for example, costs 10 times the usual price, residents said.

Some activists say the blockade is doing little to improve security or hurt Hamas, which is using the tunnels to resupply itself with arms and building materials. Instead, they say, the restrictions inflict a collective punishment.

"This isn't about security," said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli group that focuses on Palestinian rights. "This is about imposing pressure on the Hamas regime and trying to promote policy goals on the backs of 1.5 million civilians."

She and others warned that pushing Gaza into deeper economic turmoil and depriving people of education and livelihoods could backfire by deepening animosity toward Israel.

"Having 1.5 million increasingly desperate people in Gaza is not in the interest of long-term peace," U.N. spokesman Gunness said.

An Israeli defense official said Palestinians in Gaza bear responsibility for having elected Hamas. "They are the ones who decided to let Hamas take over and continue the violence," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Business leaders in Gaza say the blockade and recent fighting have wiped out Gaza's industrial sector and eliminated their ability to help in the recovery. On the outskirts of Gaza City, most cement factories and other plants lay in ruins from the conflict.

"Industry is completely dead in Gaza, and it will take years to rebuild," said Wadie el Masri, general manager of Gaza Industrial Estate, a now-vacant industrial park that once employed 3,000 people. "I'm really not optimistic. In the past, Israel would squeeze a little and then let go. This time they are squeezing and squeezing and squeezing."


edmund.sanders @latimes.com

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