It's been nearly six months since the end of the latest war in Gaza, but the devastation left behind makes it seem as though the last bombs dropped only yesterday.
Psychologically, too, Gazans are still shell-shocked and traumatized by a conflict that killed some 2,192 people — mostly civilians, and many children — and destroyed more than 96,000 homes in less than two months. The fact that this was the third conflict in a span of six years made it all harder, not easier.
"People are not alive," Ahmed Alghraiz, a resident of the Nuseirat refugee camp, in the center of the strip, told VICE News. "The last war was so hard because they were bombing without knowing whom they were bombing or killing. And now, people are living just counting days, every day is the same, just the date changed."
"If I weren't a dancer I would die," he added.
But Alghraiz is a dancer — one of the first to bring breakdancing to the streets of Gaza a decade ago. The Saudi-born 26-year-old actually studied to be a nurse — "but there are no jobs in Gaza," he said, so he found another way to bring healing to his community. With his brother and some friends, he launched the "Camp Breakers Crew" — Gaza's only breakdancing group — bringing hip-hop and acrobatic moves to the children and youth of the strip's refugee camps.
It hasn't been easy — nothing in Gaza is. At first, the group faced the raised eyebrows of a society that remains deeply conservative. But they won over their neighbors' hearts by incorporating stories of Palestinian struggle and suffering in their dancing — and by offering local kids a free and much-needed distraction — so much so that, in another first in Gaza, they now offer breakdancing classes for girls, too.
Then, during the 2008-2009 Israeli bombing campaign and ground invasion, the group's rented dance studio was razed to the ground. Their new space was spared in the latest war, but turned into a shelter for eight families who lost their homes.
In their latest video, the Camp Breakers turn the rubble surrounding them into a stage — doing backflips off what remains of collapsed buildings, and posing as corpses in the ruins before rising up from the dead and breaking into dance.
"We decided to help ourselves by ourselves. Hip hop is the biggest way to express ourselves and our lives," Alghraiz said — adding that it is also "a psychological way to help the kids."
He has little hope about Gaza's promised reconstruction — "It hasn't started," he said — and even less about a political solution. Like others in the strip, he says all he wants is an airport, to get out.
"Sometimes I feel like I will give up, but when I look around me and I look at the kids, I feel responsible to not give up," Alghraiz said. "If we give up there's no existence."
So even with very little building going on in Gaza at the moment, his group is planning to open up a second dance center — this one in the north of the strip, one of the areas most devastated by the latest war.
"We are concerned about the children who live in the north, and their mental and physical states," the group said on their Indiegogo fundraising page. "We believe that they need to dance and learn to focus on art, peace, and love so they forget the awful memory of war… We want Gaza to dance and be happy instead of sad. We want to replace the piles of rubble, full of death, with a dance academy full of life."
'Hopeless and Helpless and Powerless'
Like the cement needed to rebuild, the Camp Breakers' determination to fight the destruction left behind by the war is a rare commodity in Gaza, where many have given up in the face of stalled rebuilding efforts.
In fact, officials and residents alike are warning that the desperation simmering in the strip is reaching a dangerous point.
"People are hopeless and helpless and powerless," Marwan Diab, public relations director at the Gaza Community Mental Health Foundation, told VICE News.
Since the 1990s, the group has provided mental health and rehabilitation services to an overwhelmingly traumatized population. They go door to door to offer counseling to those who lost relatives or homes, continuing the work after the last war despite the fact that many staff members, including Diab, lost loved ones of their own.
"Some cases that we have worked before are relapsing, and once again they need an intervention; the suffering of the people is huge and increasing," Diab said, adding that the aftermath of the latest war has been the "worst" Gaza has ever experienced. "Any time that there is any provocation they think that the war may be coming back again."
People are done hoping for physical reconstruction, he said.
"Until now, some people whose houses were destroyed in 2008 still have not had those houses reconstructed, so people who lost their homes in the last war are not expecting this to happen at a very speedy pace," he said. "Unfortunately, we have lost all hope in any negotiations — we are not hopeful about the future, we think there are even worse things to come."
That hopelessness — and the stagnant reconstruction — is cause for serious alarm, officials said.
"It's very dangerous," Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Gaza (UNRWA), told VICE News.
'Sometimes I feel like I will give up, but when I look around me and I look at the kids, I feel responsible to not give up.'
"The international community must understand that what's going on here will endanger everything, not only inside Gaza, but outside Gaza as well," he added. "No one wants to see another round of violence here. No one wants to see another war, and everyone should understand that at the moment, there is no tomorrow in Gaza."
Homes that are literally and figuratively broken are not Gaza's only problem.
Thousands of residents have been stuck in the strip as Egypt has all but shut down the border. The economy — struggling before the war — has taken a serious hit as rebuilding has failed to materialize, killing the construction jobs on which so many in Gaza have come to rely. Public employees have gone without salary for weeks as political unity between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority virtually collapsed. The terms of a truce with the Israelis remain unresolved.
Earlier this month, a protest against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo saw dozens of Salafists in Gaza rally against the government and in support of the Islamic State. The prospect of growing Islamic State influence in Gaza is serious cause for concern among both locals and the international community.
"We have gone from bad to worse, this is not the Gaza that I know," Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza-based independent think tank PalThink for Strategic Studies, told VICE News, remembering more liberal — and less desperate — times there.
"This is the most difficult economic situation that there has been, ever," he said. "The international community needs to understand that. There's a lot going on in the world, but Gaza is a place that could destabilize everything."
'A Destroyed Society'
Gaza's physical destruction is for everyone to see, but the strip's devastation runs much deeper.
"The poverty rate is rising, and the unemployed; you can talk about a destroyed society," Abu Hasna said.
The UN rebuilding agency rang the emergency bell once again last week, when it announced that it would have to stop repairing homes by the end of January because it had run out of money. On Wednesday, dozens of Gazans stormed the agency's compound in Gaza after rebuilding payments to families were suspended.
The agency received only $135 million of an estimated $720 million needed to repair damaged and destroyed homes. Up to 60,000 people still live in temporary shelter, including 14,000 in UN schools. Others went back to perilous homes, with sporadic — if any — electricity during a winter that has brought freezing temperatures to the region.
In total, Gaza was promised some $5.4 billion in reconstruction money from foreign donors — but very little actually arrived.
"We've received only $130 million, from pledges of more than $5 billion," Abu Hasna said. "We asked for 724 and right now we've received 15 percent."
The lack of funds is not the only problem paralyzing reconstruction in Gaza. Money has also been slow to arrive due to a lagging political process.
Ceasefire negotiations between Hamas and Israel put an end to the conflict but failed to make progress on a lasting peace deal — leaving Gazans and donors alike to fear that fighting may flare up again at any moment. A promised reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority also failed to go anywhere, and some donors refused to fulfill their pledges until the coalition government formed by the two is fully operational in Gaza — an increasingly distant prospect.
'There's a lot going on in the world, but Gaza is a place that could destabilize everything.'
"Most of the European countries are not giving out money for the reconstruction because they want to make sure that whatever they give money for will not be destroyed again, and there is no political guarantee of that," Shaban said. "If I put myself in the international community's shoes, I don't want to rebuild what was rebuilt two years ago: there are so many parts of Gaza that were destroyed in this war that were rebuilt with aid money in 2010 and 2009. There are some roads that were done by USAID three times."
Aid from other Arab countries has also slowed as the political landscape remains uncertain, he added.
If rebuilding is messy on the political front, it is no less complicated on the ground. Residents hoping to get construction material need to go through a complex bureaucracy in Gaza first, before their names are sent over to the Israelis for approval — as the Israelis require that aid allowed in must not benefit Hamas.
Approval — even for essential commodities such as cement — is slow and arbitrary.
"Nothing is moving and this is creating new tensions," Shaban said. "You'll find two houses, both destroyed, and one was approved for cement and the other one was not."
The United Nations has stepped in to oversee the reconstruction effort — but to residents in Gaza that means the UN has become the de facto enforcer of the Israeli-imposed siege.
"Why does the UN need to deliver services to the Palestinians when we have a political system?" Shaban asked, calling for a change in strategy. "We have political leaders, they are the ones who are responsible for us and they should take responsibility."
Reconstruction has always been difficult in Gaza — and the rebuilding is usually still incomplete when the next conflict breaks out. But the current reconstruction has been especially disastrous, Shaban said. Following the 2012 conflict, for instance, some 2,000 tons of cement a day continued to flow through secret tunnels — many of which were destroyed last summer. Construction — and construction jobs — boomed, and with no coalition government to blame, Hamas took responsibility for the rebuilding effort.
This time, though, it seems everyone is waiting for the next war before they start rebuilding.
"I do expect another round of violence to come from the lack of reconstruction and reconciliation," Shaban said — and both Israel and the international community are beginning to realize that, he added. "They know that things are not going in the right direction."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi