"We accepted the sorrow, but the sorrow didn't accept us."
Ibtisam* sat in the dust, laughing, her broad, witty face framed by her flowered hijab. In her 45 years living in Gaza, she'd seen so much sorrow that laughing is the only real response.
Her husband had died during the second intifada from a stress-induced asthma attack she believes was triggered by the sound of a tank firing. He left her with four children to raise, which she did in a four-family home surrounded by olive trees, chicken coops, and a garden where she grew thyme.
That home is gone now—along with the rest of the Shujaiya neighborhood—due to Israeli shells and bulldozers during Operation Protective Edge , which hit Gaza in the summer of 2014.
Operation Protective Edge was Israel's third full-scale military incursion into the strip since Hamas took control in 2007. During their bombing campaign and ground invasion, Israeli forces killed over 2,100 Palestinians, according to the United Nations, 70 percent of them civilians, including nearly 500 children. Eleven thousand more were injured. A June 2015 UN report found evidence of war crimes.
While all Gaza suffered during the war, Shujaiya endured a unique decimation. One Gazan translator, a thin, sarcastic man in his 30s, struggled for words to describe what he'd seen there. He finally settled on one: hell. Will I die here? he remembered wondering during Protective Edge. Will I be left in the sun, swelling like a balloon, with no one able to pick up my corpse?
The devastation extended to industry and infrastructure. Israel destroyed water networks, universities, sewage pumping stations, and over 100 businesses, according to a report initiated by the Association of International Development Agencies. The main fuel tank of the Gaza power plant lay in ruins, and lack of spare parts left 25 percent of the population without power. Hospitals sank into darkness, Gazans could not locate their loved ones, and food and water grew scarce.
The war destroyed 18,000 housing units, leaving 108,000 Gazans homeless.
Ibtisam said that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), offered her no help, but the humanitarian organization Islamic Relief came to her rescue. She now lives with her kids in a trailer provided by Gaza's Ministry of Workers after selling the rubble of her former home for 700 shekels (about $185). With only a widow's pension and one son working as a day laborer, she was forced to wrack up debts to feed and clothe her children. Some days, the whole family lives on bread alone.
"We want to tell the world we're the same." Ibtisam said. "We don't want wars. We don't want blockades. We don't want peace just for a month, but for forever."
Nearly a year after the end of Protective Edge, little has changed in Shujaiya. A few houses have been patched up, but many more are nothing but rubble. Piles of prescriptions fluttered in front of the destroyed Ministry of Health. Everywhere homes lay collapsed like ruined layer cakes, the fillings composed of the flotsam of daily life: blankets, cooking pots, Qu'rans, cars. In one pile of dust I saw a child's notebook, abandoned. "My uncle collects honey," the nameless child had written on the first page.
Graffiti adorned many houses: "I Love Gaza" scrawled next to a heart pierced by a rocket, "I'm Still Here," AK-47s sketched by a fighter, a mural of a bleeding man pulling down the barrier between the West Bank and Israel to look at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site. For all the attention Banksy won painting on Gazan rubble, this art is far sharper. Banksy can come and go, but these artists are trapped here, in what many call an open-air prison. Defiance bleeds from their every line.
I watched as construction workers straightened rebar in front of the bombed out el-Wafa hospital, once a rehabilitation center for paralyzed adults. During Protective Edge, the Israeli army shelled the medical facility, knocking out the power and forcing nurses to carry disabled patients down pitch-black stairwells.
Rafiq, 30, is an engineer working for one of the companies hired by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to clear rubble. Clearing bombsites is always a technical challenge, but Israel's blockade, which limits importation of construction equipment and materials, has made it much harder. Donkeys hauled loads of rubble. Workers straightened rebar with crude hand tools and rocks. Sometimes Rafiq's crew found unexploded bombs, which they had to call the police to disarm. Worse were the bodies. Once, Rafiq stumbled across a dead child, still clutching his school bag. Another time his crew dug out a mother whose head had been crushed while she was shielding her baby, her long hair tangled in the dust.
Shujaiya wasn't supposed to be like this. After Israel and Palestinian armed groups called a ceasefire in 2014, donor countries gathered in Cairo and pledged $3.5 billion dollars to rebuild Gaza. But the high of good PR fades fast, and as of April 2015 donors had only given a quarter of what they promised.
To deal with the lack of funds, the UNDP divided ruined homes into three tiers, depending on the amount of damage. According to sources working in rubble clearing, only owners of homes with minor damage have seen cash or materials. According to Gazans I spoke to, the help offered was rarely enough to fix what has been destroyed.
Ibrahim Abu Omar, 57, is one of the many Gazans who has taken rebuilding into his own hands. He served my translator and me tea in the concrete shell of what would be his new house. The gray box took ten months for his family to build and cost $15,000, which he had saved working as a truck driver. He recently took out another $12,000 loan. Despite this, the home is nowhere near finished. The shell sat next to a twisted pile of rebar left by a private company he'd paid to clear his land.
Ibrahim remembers every conflict going back to 1967's Six-Day War. He remembers the lemon trees his father planted when he was a boy. He remembers 2006, the year of Hamas's election and Israel's subsequent blockade. "Everything was destroyed after that," he said with a sigh.
During Protective Edge, he had to flee his home with nothing but the clothes on his back, running with his family through the streets till he found a UNRWA school where he stayed for weeks. He returned to find both his home and his son's neighboring house completely gone. So that Israeli soldiers did not have to move through the streets, where they would be exposed, Israeli tanks cleared paths by firing into housing units. What shells started, bulldozers finished. Ibrahim's house lay crushed under the rubble of his son's.
After the ceasefire was declared, Hamas's charitable movement gave Ibrahim's family $2,000. The money quickly disappeared on food and other essentials. When he began to rebuild, Gaza's municipal government demanded $2,500 to register the new house and connect it to the power grid. This was one of many stories I would hear of the municipal government using the destruction of people's homes to extract fees or back taxes.
If you're with Hamas, you have a good life. If you're not… – Ibrahim Abu Omar
At least they gave him some money initially, however. Ibrahim said that none of the NGO's swarming Gaza gave him a shekel, though UNRWA did stop by to take photos.
I asked him what he thought of Hamas. He laughed, then looked nervously to the side. "If you're with Hamas, you have a good life. If you're not…" Ibrahim had been employed by the Palestinian Authority, whose dominant Fatah party has spent the last decade in an occasionally violent struggle with Hamas. Even now, employees of the PA living in Gaza told me that, despite receiving salaries, they don't show up for work—though they nervously declined to spell out the reason.
Meanwhile, Israel maintains its blockade on building materials coming into Gaza, claiming that it wants to prevent them from being used by Hamas to create tunnels into Israel and Egypt. According to Israeli human rights group Gisha, Israel has only allowed about 1.3 million tons of construction material to enter Gaza since September, which is merely a fifth of the 5 million tons experts estimate are needed to repair the war's damage. However, Israel has only allowed about 1.3 million tons to enter Gaza, or a fifth of the amount . This trickle is so inadequate that Oxfam has estimated it will take 100 years to rebuild— assuming Israel doesn't invade Gaza in the intervening century.
Ibrahim gestured to buckets of cement and explained that because of the blockade, he's only able to purchase cement in a weight meant for walls, not ceilings. He mixed it with water to make it light enough, but worried the roof will cave in after a few years.
"There are no engineers. No one's watching. The house falls down and no one cares." He gave a disgusted shrug. "What can you do?" It's an expression I heard over and over again in Gaza.
A few hundred yards down, two boys dug at the rubble of a collapsed multifamily dwelling that once was home to 80 people. Their grandfather, Ouz Abu Mohammed al-Ejla, owned a small construction business that had employed the boys' dad. But the company's tools and vehicles lay buried beneath layers of shattered concrete. The boys poked at the dust with shovels, more out of habit than belief that there was anything they'd be able to salvage.
"Don't cry about someone who lost his money. Cry about someone who lost his work," al-Ejla told me. He was a towering man, handsome even at his age, with high cheekbones. The war has exacted a brutal toll on his family. His son had been shot in the ankle. His wife lost her baby. When the family finally fled the bombs, she was so ill her daughters had to carry her. The family lived crammed for weeks in a single room of a school, starving on canned fish and beans. Because of overcrowding, fights broke out with their new roommates. The women had nightmares of glass, dust, and shaking walls.
After the war, Hamas gave al-Ejla $2,000 for rent, for an extended family of 80 people. It was gone after just two months.
We're contractors. We can build houses… We don't need help. Just give us money. – Ouz Abu Mohammed al-Ejla
Al-Ejla set to working on repairing a building for his family to live in, buying second-hand materials and fixing up bathrooms, doors, and entire flats. While he was working, a UN employee approached him and suggested he register for aid. UN employees assessed his building to have $17,000 of damage.
But Al-Ejla told me that when he went to the UN office to collect his check, they claimed he was only promised $10,700, and they would pay him in two installments. Worried that he'd never see any money at all, he agreed to the lower amount and continued working, cementing, and roofing with his sons, paying $2,000 out of his pocket that UN officials assured him would be reimbursed. The first check, for $4,000, came, along with a plaque bearing the joint logos of the UNDP, the Arab Monetary Fund, and the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa. It proudly proclaimed that these groups generously contributed money to rebuild 600 housing units affected by the war.
That was the last he heard from the UN.
When I asked al-Ejla about the plaque, he threw up his hands in contempt.
"We're contractors. We can build houses." al-Ejla said in his booming voice. "We don't need help. Just give us money. The cement for these walls cost $6,000 alone."
Other NGO programs proved just as frustrating. Al-Ejla and his family waited in line for hours for help that turned out to be coupons for cheap plastic water jugs, 30-year-old rice, and cheese "a cow wouldn't eat."
"I don't care about politics, just my family, so why do I get this?" al-Ejla asked.
According to Israeli politicians across the spectrum, Hamas is the cause of all these woes. Because Gazans elected Hamas in 2006, and the group later seized control of the strip in 2007, they are fair game.
Hamas itself isn't much of a threat. It has ineffectual rockets—since 2007, rocket and mortar attacks have killed 44 people within Israel. Hamas's municipal government is so broke that many civil servants have gone months without pay. Before most of the smuggling tunnels were destroyed, they were more like the besieged residents' economic lifelines.
But Israeli politicians are more concerned with Hamas as a PR construct—one that lets them recast aggression as self-defense.
Israel invokes Hamas to justify its hundreds of ceasefire violations, its restrictions on Gazans' movement, and the blockade that devastates Gaza's economy, grinding residents' future as fine as Shujaiya's dust.
Whether or not Hamas is at fault, Gaza suffers. Despite having no proof that Hamas leadership was involved, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank provided Netenyahu with Operation Protective Edge's justification. In the days after the kidnapping, Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza, and arrested hundreds of Palestinians, including most of Hamas' West Bank leadership. When Hamas retaliated with rockets, Israel had its excuse for open war.
On the sea's horizon, I could see gold pinpricks—the lights of Israeli gunships. Then, I heard the growl of fighter jets.
On my last night in Gaza, I saw that sort of misattributed revenge take place on a smaller scale.
A Salafist group opposing Hamas shot three rockets into Israel. They landed in a field where they burnt a small circle in the grass. Israel holds Hamas responsible for any rocket attack coming from the strip, even those launched by its enemies. The drones buzzed more loudly than usual above our heads that night.
I sat on the balcony of my apartment, overlooking Gaza's beach, where during the day, little boys hawked boat rides and couples smoked shisha. A year before, Israeli shells killed four children on that beach. A week after my visit, Israeli internal investigation would absolve the army of any wrongdoing.
The drones grew louder. On the sea's horizon, I could see gold pinpricks—the lights of Israeli gunships. Then, I heard the growl of fighter jets.
These were common sounds, on a common night, in that uncommon, besieged, and defiant city.
By midnight, the shells began to fall.
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*Some sources declined to give their last names.