Tobias Buck
The Financial Times
December 24, 2009 - 12:00am
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d3a841f0-f02b-11de-833d-00144feab49a.html


Until the day the soldiers came, Majed Abdullah al-Atamneh counted himself a fortunate man. He owned six houses on the eastern fringes of Abed Rabbo village in the northern Gaza Strip, three taxis and several acres of land planted with olive and lemon trees. All his sons and their families lived in the family compound, 56 men, women and children in total.

"I was like a millionaire," the 60-year-old says, as he surveys the mountain of concrete rubble that marks the spot where his house once stood. To one side there is a small two-room house built of mud bricks. It was completed only last week and will now serve as his new home after long months living in tents.

Mr Atamneh's fortunes ran out in January this year, when Israeli soldiers poured across the border in the early days of the ground offensive that marked the decisive escalation of the three-week Gaza war. The family was told to leave the compound, and all the buildings inside were blown up. Many more buildings were destroyed in the area, which was used by the Israeli army as an entry point for troops and tanks fighting inside the strip.

It is almost exactly one year since the Israeli army and air force fired the first shots of a bloody war on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that was aimed at weakening the Islamist group, and ending the firing of rockets from Gaza on nearby Israeli towns and villages. The war left about 1,400 Palestinians dead and pulverised much of the strip's paltry infrastructure as well as thousands of homes. Today, much of the rubble and the piles of concrete and twisted metal have been cleared from the streets of Gaza. The bitterness and the hatred of Israel that is felt by many of its residents, however, continue to fester.

"In 1948 we were expelled from our village [inside present-day Israel] and were forced to live in tents. Sixty-one years later the Israelis forced us to live in tents once again," laments Mr Atamneh.

Indeed, the suffering of ordinary Gazans during the war has been compounded in the months since by the absence of any meaningful reconstruction, and the lack of building materials and aid shipments to the strip. Even before the conflict, Israel imposed a tight embargo on the territory, refusing to let anything other than basic humanitarian supplies enter Gaza, home to 1.5m Palestinians.

Ibrahim Radwan, the deputy minister of housing in the Hamas government, says his department has been able to clear the rubble and secure some 700 housing units that were threatening to collapse. Beyond that, however, the government has neither the money nor the materials to start rebuilding. The cost of rebuilding destroyed and damaged residential property alone runs to about $1bn (€700m, £630m), Mr Radwan estimates. His ministry's entire budget for 2009 was just $350,000.

Immediately after the war, there was a burst of diplomatic activity and countless calls for Israel to open the Gaza borders in order to allow reconstruction materials to enter. However, as a group of human rights organisations pointed out earlier this week, the early pressure has yielded no results.

Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International, said: "The wretched reality endured by 1.5m people in Gaza should appal anybody with an ounce of humanity . . . All states must insist that the Israeli government end its blockade and let the people of Gaza rebuild their lives."

Israel says it is committed to preventing a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, but refuses to allow in goods or materials that it says would strengthen Hamas or pose a security risk to the Jewish state.

While the Gaza war has led to a sharp rise in criticism of Israel, the offensive does appear to have achieved one main goal: the number of rocket attacks has decreased significantly since the guns fell silent, and Hamas officials say they are keen to maintain calm for the time being.

In other ways, however, it is less clear what Israel has gained. Islamist rule in Gaza looks to be as secure as ever and, according to all accounts, Hamas' military wing has rebuilt its depleted arsenals and is busy learning the military lessons of the January war.

Finally, there are the fresh seeds of hatred sown by the death and destruction visited on Gaza a year ago. Mr Atamneh, for one, says the war is likely to teach a cruel lesson to a new generation of Palestinians: "When my grandson asks me, 'Who destroyed our house?' I will tell him that it was the Israelis. He will be obliged to go and join Hamas and become a fighter - to take revenge."




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