Erin Cunningham
The National
December 31, 2009 - 1:00am

In a rare scene in a territory where industry has all but collapsed, a Palestinian worker in the Gaza Strip pounds on fractured slabs of destroyed buildings with a shoddy hammer, dumping the fragments into a machine that then crushes and spits the gravel into a bin.

Subsequently mixed with the odd bag of smuggled cement, the rubble of Gaza is transformed by this flagship factory in the north into flimsy but lucrative bricks now used to patch some of the enclave’s war-damaged houses.

Last winter Israel launched a punishing three-week war on the Gaza Strip, leaving unprecedented destruction in its wake and killing close to 1,400 Palestinians. One year later, a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade keeps vital reconstruction materials out of the battered territory and, locals say, not a single structure has been rebuilt.

“The situation today is exactly the same as it was immediately after the war,” said the deputy director of operations at the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, Christer Nordahl. “All of the money pledged by international donors for the reconstruction of Gaza – US$4.5 billion [Dh16.5bn] – is still available. But because of the blockade, we are unable to start our work.”

Israel’s refusal to allow the importation of such raw materials as cement, steel, iron and wood into Gaza is part of a larger economic blockade it placed on the coastal strip when Hamas violently seized control in June 2007.

Israel says the materials could be used by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups to build rockets they launch into the state.

But the 22-day land, air and sea-based assault laid waste to critical infrastructure, completely ruining or causing significant damage to houses, hospitals, schools, factories, ministries, sewage plants, power lines and water wells.

Now, Gaza’s landscape of 600,000 tonnes of debris, according to figures from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is a not-so-subtle reminder of the devastation, and of the territory’s inability to recover.

“Reconstruction is so important, not only in terms of infrastructure,” said Gaza’s minister of housing, Youssef al Mansi. “We need to live normal lives like everyone else in the world. It is not normal to live like this, with destruction on every corner. People can’t forget.”

But like the rubble-to-brick factory in Gaza’s north, and what some say is the absence of a Hamas-sponsored reconstruction plan, people are taking the task of rebuilding into their own hands.

A small number of Gazans have rebuilt homes with mud bricks, prompting UNRWA to embark on a construction project of about 100 mud homes for displaced families. Residents are also lining their shattered windowpanes with plastic sheeting, after glass was blown out in the bombing and as winter sets in again.

About 50,000 people are still without decent living quarters, the United Nations says, with some of them still living in or next to their destroyed houses, or sharing homes with relatives.

“I give the people of Gaza enormous credit for the dignity they have maintained through all of this,” said Martha Myer, the Israel-Palestine country director for Care International. “They are an incredibly entrepreneurial and creative people, and are hungry for ways to make their situation better. They always find a way.”

Mr Nordahl said if the borders were opened, reconstruction would be a boon for the Gazan economy: at least 45 per cent of Palestinian labourers from Gaza were employed as builders in Israel before the outbreak of the intifada, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

“If the international community puts pressure on Israel to lift the blockade, there would be an immediate and very marked improvement in job creation and general economic activity,” Mr Nordahl said. “Construction was one of Gaza’s biggest industrial sectors, which means any reconstruction would translate into tons of instant employment opportunities.”

Ms Myer said reconstruction would need to start small, with the provision of basic shelters for the homeless, repairs to schools and ensuring Gaza’s water and sanitation systems are running properly.

Then both locals and the international community, she said, would need to undertake a wholesale rebuilding of roads and communications networks, the rehabilitation of agricultural land, and revitalising Gazan industry.

But Amr Hamad, executive manager of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, a private sector organisation, said even if development organisations have technical plans for what needs to be done when borders open, resuscitating economic life in Gaza may not be as easy as repairing a few roads and providing access to clean drinking water.

“The situation after the war is sustaining itself longer than I expected,” Mr Hamad said. “But I fear we may soon be reaching a point of irreversibility. Even if conditions improve on the surface, there won’t be true normality like there was before – because we’re already forgetting what that’s like.”


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