Little hope in Gaza ruins a year after devastating war

Little hope in Gaza ruins a year after devastating war

GAZA CITY - Agence France-Presse
Little hope in Gaza ruins a year after devastating war

Palestinian woman holds her daughter as she walks past the ruins of houses, that witnesses said were destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war last summer, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip July 2, 2015. Reuters Photo

In the ruins of what used to be his home, Gaza Strip resident Rabah Abu Shanab reflects on what used to be - and what little hope remains.

“We were doing better a year ago,” the 57-year-old said while sitting on a plastic chair in his living room, now just concrete slabs and twisted iron bars.

“The whole world was paying attention to Gaza, but today nobody cares.”

This week marks one year since Israel’s devastating war with Palestinian militants in Gaza, and despite a tacit ceasefire that has largely held, there has been little reason for residents caught up in the conflict to believe their suffering will soon end.

Thousands of homes destroyed by Israeli strikes are yet to be rebuilt, a strict Israeli blockade and tightly controlled borders have added to Gazans’ misery and the risk of yet another conflict remains a threat.

On top of that, internal tensions have seen Salafist extremists in Gaza challenge Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the territory, angry over its ceasefire with Israel and what they see as its lack of zeal in enforcing Islamic law.

Jihadists - and not Hamas - have claimed credit for recent rocket fire into Israel.

They have claimed links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Leavnt (ISIL), and whether or not there is any truth to such statements, their emergence has further complicated the task of setting Gaza on a path to recovery.

Residents find themselves trapped in the besieged coastal enclave, which has seen three wars in six years and where 39 percent of the 1.8-million population lives below the poverty line.

Last year’s 50-day war was the longest and deadliest of the three, with 2,251 Palestinians killed, including 551 children, compared with 73 people on the Israeli side.

“I think what is different after this last conflict than even after the previous two was a much higher sense of hopelessness, that there really was not a feeling that the conditions were going to improve,” said Robert Turner, director of operations in Gaza for U.N. relief agency UNRWA.

“We have not addressed any of the underlying causes, so I think conventional wisdom would be that another conflict becomes inevitable at some point.”

Indirect talks between Hamas and Israel’s right-wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the aim of shoring up the ceasefire - and potentially easing the blockade that has been in part blamed for the slow progress in rebuilding - have not convinced war-weary residents.

For Yahya Zaza, 20, “war has become normal for us.”

“We know that we don’t have any future,” he said of the crowded territory where a population of graduates remains frustratingly unemployed amid the nine-year blockade.

Mohamed Sendawi, 18, spends his days collecting rubble from the war to sell to recyclers, filling his cart to earn 10 shekels ($3). He said he does it “to feed his brothers and sisters.”

A recent poll showed that one in two Gazans wants to leave the territory, a sentiment that has also led to tragedy, with many residents seeking to emigrate illegally drowning in the Mediterranean. Israel and Egypt allow few people through the land borders they control.

When the conflict finally ended last year, Hamas proclaimed “victory” despite the destruction, while Israel said it had fulfilled its objectives of destroying tunnels dug by militants and halting rocket fire.

Gazans today sneer at such claims of victory in a war that wiped out entire families, while rocket fire has continued to occur and Islamist militants have shown off their tunnels to the news media.

Political scientist Mukhaimer Abu Saada said it is difficult to name any significant gains for either side, apart from the fact that “now the parties are aware that there is no military solution and that they will have to sit down and talk.”

But even recent indirect contacts between Hamas and Israel have led to fallout.

The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority led by president Mahmud Abbas chafed at being excluded from the talks, and Abbas has sought to remake the Palestinian unity government put in place last year in an attempt to end a years-long split with Hamas.

Hamas official Ahmed Yousef said: “All the ingredients are there for an explosion: Reconstruction has not begun and the war showed that it was not a solution since the situation is worse than before.”

It has created a vacuum that the jihadists have sought to fill, and signs of danger are apparent. ISIL fighters are battling Egyptian soldiers just over the border in Sinai, and some Gazans have left to fight in Syria.

Before last year’s war, two thirds of the Gaza population depended on food aid and more than 40 percent was unemployed, said the U.N.’s Turner.

“None of that has improved,” he said. “For the reconstruction of homes, we have money for 200 homes... but we need to rebuild about 7,000.”

Rights activist Essam Younes said: “Gazans are being treated like guinea pigs: We are mixing humiliation with confinement and waiting to see the result.”

The only thing that is sure is that it will be dangerous because people are increasingly edgy.”