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'We Have No Money For Food Let Alone a New Home': Marooned Gazans Await Help After Summer Conflict

Billions of dollars of international aid were pledged to help rebuild the 18,000 homes destroyed and 50,000 damaged in the summer's bloody 51-day war between Hamas and Israel. But so far progress has been little or none.
Image via Harriet Salem

Salem al-Ajla surveys the damage from the rooftop: a field of broken concrete and twisted metal stretching towards the horizon. Nearly all of the surrounding buildings in his east Gaza neighborhood of Shuja'iya were reduced to rubble this summer during a bloody 51-day war between Israel and Hamas, the group in de facto control of the Gaza Strip. Those still standing, like Ajla's apartment block, are uninhabitable shells with no electricity or running water. "We are living hand-to-mouth, we have no money for food let alone a new home," the 68-year-old tells VICE News.


Four months after the end of the conflict, a few residents have come home; makeshift plywood walls and brightly colored laundry lines show tentative signs of the return of life. But in much of the neighborhood, abandoned buildings and the remnants of walls blasted away by airstrikes and shelling create a more ghostly effect. A macabre human museum, publicly exhibiting private rooms: an overturned sofa, a dusty framed family portrait, a dented kitchen pot, a child's single pink sandal.

Salem al-Ajla's apartment block is one of the few still standing in his east Gaza neighborhood of Shuja'iya; four months after the conflict it remains an uninhabitable shell. Images via Harriet Salem.

Ajla now spends his days keeping a lonely watch beneath his apartment block's crumbling staircase. His wife and three sons have received almost no financial support since they were made homeless during the war. Their last house was also destroyed during the last war with Israel in 2008 to 2009; but Ajla says what troubles him the most are the sentimental items that can never be replaced. "Sometimes I cry when I think about the photos of my forefathers that were burned," he says ruefully. "Most of the time I just sit here and think about what happened. I'm an old man, I don't have enough life left to start again a third time."

Billions of dollars of international aid were pledged to help the marooned inhabitants of the strip in the aftermath of the war, but so far progress in rebuilding the 18,000 destroyed and 50,000 damaged homes has been little or none.

Part of the problem is the slow and cumbersome application processes attached to getting building materials. Since Hamas seized power in the strip in 2007, Israel has imposed tight restrictions of imports of cement and concrete into Gaza, fearing the resources are being siphoned off by the group to build underground tunnels for terrorist activities. A United Nations-brokered deal between Israeli and Palestinian officials in September was supposed to ease the process, but experts say vigorous vetting procedures and stringent security conditions — including video surveillance and GPS tracking of building materials — mean that in practice virtually no equipment has reached the private sector.


"The bureaucracy involved means a single application involves multiple agencies on both sides and takes months from start to finish. That's one problem, the other is that only one crossing is open to bring materials in," Mkhaimar Abusada, a political analyst and professor at Gaza's Al-Azhar University told VICE News. "There is a need for 1.5 million tons of cement and tens of thousands of tons of steel and gravel, but Erez (border crossing) can only accommodate 300 to 400 trucks a day; that's enough for basic necessities, gas, food, cooking oil nothing more."

Israel is not the only obstacle to rebuilding the strip, however. Political infighting between rival Palestinian factions is also hampering aid delivery efforts.

On paper, Hamas, branded a terrorist organization by Israel and the US, reconciled a seven-year rift with Fatah, the governing body in West Bank, in June this year under the auspices of a "unity government." But in practice the two sides are still at loggerheads. "Fatah blames Hamas for provoking the war and the estruction, but Hamas says that the (Fatah-dominated) unity government is in charge and so has to take responsibility for the situation, including for the war and financing reconstruction," said Abusada. "There is a lot anger and frustration on both sides and in the middle the people are stuck."

Like many locals, Ajla is unsure which authority is really in charge, or who to apply to for aid. "It's a foggy situation," he says. "They say it is a unity government, but we believe it's Hamas. It's the same faces and the same rules here, nothing has changed since June."


In November, the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, cancelled a trip to the Strip over safety concerns, after Hamas said it would be unable to provide security for him in the wake of a series of bomb attacks on the homes and vehicles of number of senior Fatah officials. But locals say they are frustrated with the lack of support from West Bank. "Abbas (the Palestinian president) hasn't set foot here to visit his people since the end of the war," grumbles Ajla. "What am I supposed to think about that?"

The situation looks set to get worse before it gets better. In Gaza City's Shifa hospital, several vital medicines used in the treatment of cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases are in short supply; others have run out altogether. "If you can't pay it takes six months to get an operation. Patients who can't get permission to go out, or get medicines brought in are dying," Dr Ayman al- Sahbani, head of the emergency department, told VICE News.

Like most of the hospital's staff, Sahbani says he has not received his wages for seven months. Disputes over who should pay government employees in Gaza that were either appointed by Hamas after the coup, or continued to work under them, have caused a multitude of problems under the unity government. Hospital waste bins overflow and treatment rooms have been left filthy after unpaid cleaners walked out on the job.

The closure of the tunnels from Egypt into Gaza earlier this year put severe financial pressure on Hamas, which used to charge taxes on the goods smuggled in through the underground network. "A year ago there was no real interest in reconciliation but Hamas had to make a lot of concessions because of the financial situation," Abusada said.

Indeed, cynics argue that Fatah have a vested interested in prolonging the crisis in the isolated strip. "Of course while Hamas still has problems here in Gaza, Fatah benefits," Abusada added. "The problem is that while there are good statements at the moment there's no real political will for change."

In a city center cafe, Abu Nadir tells a black humor joke doing the rounds, that neatly sums up the bleakness of the situation. "One man tells the other: My house has been destroyed, I would be better dead, at least in heaven I would have a house and garden," chortles the coffee shop owner. "But, the second man replies: How do you know that? Maybe Fatah and Hamas are in heaven too. That would be just a Palestinian's luck!"

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem