Displaced Gazans struggle to rebuild

Tens of thousands of residents remain homeless, months after Israel’s summer assault on the besieged coastal enclave.

Workers have been using wooden pallets to construct temporary shelters in Beit Safiyya [Dan Cohen/Al Jazeera]

Beit Safiyya, Gaza – In this largely agricultural area of the northern Gaza Strip, local Palestinians were hit particularly hard during the 51 days of war with Israel that concluded with a ceasefire in August.

“We fled when Israel launched its invasion on Gaza,” Abu Rashad Safiyya, 22, told Al Jazeera. “We tried to come back to our home during a ceasefire, but we found it completely destroyed by the Israeli military.”

Safiyya and his family sought shelter in nearby schools administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). “We came back after the war finally ended and have been living here in a nylon tent ever since,” he said, citing apocalyptic scenes of destruction upon his return. “Cars were upside down and burned out. Houses were flattened and still smoking for days, and most our animals, sheep and cows, were dead and strewn across the fields.”

RELATED: Gaza under siege: Naming the dead

In early July, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge – its third military offensive in the blockaded coastal strip since late 2008 – most locals took shelter in UNRWA schools and other facilities. Now, more than three months later, Palestinians across Gaza are frustrated with the snail’s pace of reconstruction. In areas such as Beit Hanoun and the Shujayea area of Gaza City, entire neighbourhoods remain razed beyond recognition.

Israeli forces attacked Gaza by air, land and sea this summer, while armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip fired rockets into southern Israel and launched cross-border raids against Israeli military positions. Already home to an estimated 1.8 million Palestinians and one of the most densely populated regions on earth, Gaza faced “a record number of civilian casualties, the devastation of civilian buildings and infrastructure, and large scale displacement” from the war, according to the UN’s humanitarian arm.


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From the 2,257 Palestinians killed, the UN estimates that at least 1,563 were civilians, of which 538 were children. As of November, some 100,000 people across the besieged coastal enclave were still internally displaced, living in makeshift shelters, schools or with host families.

In most places, reconstruction has barely commenced. Due to Israel’s seven-year blockade on Gaza and international inaction, the import of construction materials in November “constituted 13 percent of the October 2013 level, which represents less than 30 percent of the materials imported before the blockade” began in 2007, according to Shelter Palestine, a UN humanitarian aid body.

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness said there were 300,000 Palestinians living in 90 schools at the height of the war; today, he estimates that nearly 20,000 internally displaced persons remained in 19 schools across Gaza. “These are the people who have no other option and nowhere else to go,” Gunness told Al Jazeera. “We estimate that 20,000 homes were made completely uninhabitable, either totally destroyed or so badly damaged that they cannot be lived in.”

The effects of mass displacement have hit children particularly hard, he said. “You can imagine what it’s like for children who go to school and do academic assignments, and then go back to other schools in a collective living environment. These schools are designed for educational purposes, but the buildings are not designed to accommodate thousands of people for several months on end.”

RELATED: Gaza war strengthens Palestinian unity

Documenting the extent of the destruction and probing alleged violations of international humanitarian law during the summer conflict has been a challenge, said Human Rights Watch researcher Bill Van Esveld. Human rights groups have been consistently denied entry to Gaza by Israel and Egypt since the war began. The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories was also denied entry into the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Phillip Luther, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme, said the Egyptian military has not replied to numerous requests to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing, while Israel’s entry policies were a “Catch 22”.

“The way in which we are tangled up by [Israel’s] procedural requirements is that applications and security checks go on for months and months,” Luther told Al Jazeera. “In theory, our applications are being reviewed and they’re doing security checks on the delegates, but it is a de facto refusal.”

To complete a new report, Amnesty was forced to hire freelance human rights researchers already based in Gaza. The report – “Nothing is immune: Israel’s destruction of landmark buildings in Gaza” – detailed Israel’s targeting of three residential and commercial towers in Gaza City, as well as a shopping mall in the southern town of Rafah, during the war’s final days.

“The four attacks need to be independently and impartially investigated,” the report found. “Amnesty International’s view is that no official body capable of conducting such investigations currently exists in Israel.”

Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs lashed out at Amnesty in a subsequent news release, alleging the group failed to “investigate the systematic and deliberate firing of rockets and mortars at Israel’s civilian population by an internationally recognised jihadist group [Hamas]”.

“The report offers a decontextualised description of events, while relying heavily on testimonies gathered by unnamed local ‘fieldworkers’, who are not identified and whose credibility is never questioned,” the release stated.

Asked why human rights researchers have been blocked from accessing Gaza, both the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the military’s spokesperson declined to comment for Al Jazeera.

RELATED: Is the PA stalling Gaza war crimes probe?

Back in Beit Safiyya, locals estimate 36 homes, or some 90 percent of buildings in the area, were irreparably damaged by Israel’s military during the ground invasion.

“Because we are only 600m from the border, tanks were posted around the village,” Safiyya said. “I didn’t recognise my own town, even though I grew up here, when we first got back.”

Frustrated with the lack of humanitarian aid and the delays in reconstruction, locals in Beit Safiyya have begun building wooden shacks for shelter throughout the rainy winter season. In addition to spending their entire savings, Safiyya and his family have had to borrow money to pay for the $1,500 worth of materials to construct a two-room wooden home. “I’m unemployed and cannot find work, and my brothers’ salaries are also very little,” he said. “It is a huge amount of money for us to come up with.”

Rather than living in rust-prone metal shelters or schools, 35-year-old Yusef Abu Shreti came up with the idea to construct wooden homes. A former employee of the Palestinian Authority, he took out a loan from a local bank to purchase the necessary tools and equipment. He has already overseen the completion of a dozen 10-square-metre homes with two rooms each, using recycled wood from old shipping crates and other containers; a dozen more of these homes are under construction.

“Our only other options were living in schools or outside until someone comes along to help us, and no [humanitarian] organisations have come here yet,” Abu Shreti told Al Jazeera. “But what kind of life is that? Our homes were stolen from us by [Israeli] missiles and tanks, so we need somewhere to live until we can get them back.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Abu Rashad Safiyya, 22, collects wood from pallets on the dirt floor in Beit Safiyya [Dan Cohen/Al Jazeera]


A Palestinian man salvages rebar from a destroyed home in Beit Hanoun [Dan Cohen/Al Jazeera]


One farmer whose home was destroyed, built this shelter using concrete blocks and tree branches [Dan Cohen/Al Jazeera]


Palestinian boys climb atop a collapsed roof in Beit Hanoun [Dan Cohen/Al Jazeera]


Teams work long hours to salvage rebar and other materials throughout the Gaza Strip [Dan Cohen/Al Jazeera]


An excavator digs through the rubble of Gaza City’s Zafir 4 Tower [Dan Cohen/Al Jazeera]


Source: Al Jazeera