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A Palestinian man rides past a destroyed area after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. The Israeli military has been pounding Gaza with at least 30 strikes overnight, hitting government ministries, smuggling tunnels, a banker's empty villa and a Hamas-linked media office. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in the West Bank, trying to help negotiate a truce between Israel and the militant Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Gaza cease-fire raises hopes for reconstruction
First Published Nov 25 2012 04:34 pm • Last Updated Nov 25 2012 04:39 pm

Gaza City, Gaza Strip » Mohammed Falah Azzam has been through this before.

His mother’s home was bombed in the 2008-09 Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which left hundreds dead and thousands of homes destroyed. In renewed fighting last week, an entire block of buildings housing his extended family was badly damaged in an airstrike that Israel said was aimed at a militant.

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While none of his relatives was hurt, the 61-year-old retired schoolteacher once again has to worry about providing shelter for his family. Some relatives are sleeping in an empty shop, squeezed in with other family members. Others are spending their nights in rooms covered in plastic wrap to shield them from the winter rain because all the windows were blown out.

"This is going to cost thousands," Azzam said. "The longer I wait, the more damage will happen," he added, pointing to a heavily damaged building sitting atop tilting concrete columns.

Azzam finds himself caught again in a pile of paperwork to seek assistance, trying to secure hard-to-get construction materials. This time, he hopes the process will be smoother, thanks to both Israel’s pledges to ease its longstanding border blockade and the newfound political clout of Gaza’s Hamas rulers in the region.

Israel promised to ease the blockade as part of a cease-fire last week that ended eight days of intense fighting. But difficult negotiations lie ahead, and there is no firm timeline for lifting the restrictions.

Israel launched its offensive Nov. 14 in response to months of rocket fire out of Gaza. It carried out some 1,500 airstrikes during the fighting, while Palestinian militants lobbed a similar number of rockets into Israel.

The damage to buildings in Gaza appears less extensive than it was four years ago. The United Nations estimates 10,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, while Hamas has put the number at about 8,000, including 500 that were destroyed or heavily damaged. In comparison, U.N. relief agencies said as many as 40,000 homes were affected in the earlier round of fighting.

Israel says its airstrikes are aimed at militants, and it blames Hamas for the damage, accusing the group of using residential areas for cover.

Reconstruction since the 2008-9 fighting has been slow, in large part because of Israel’s blockade. Israel imposed the restrictions in 2007, after Hamas, a militant group sworn to its destruction, wrested power over the coastal strip from the government of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.


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Under international pressure, Israel loosened the blockade in 2010 but maintained tight restrictions on imports of glass, cement, metal and other construction materials, saying they could be diverted for military use. Only U.N agencies and international organizations in the Palestinian territory are allowed to import such material from Israel for their own projects.

To make up the shortage, a bustling smuggling industry through underground tunnels along the Egyptian border has sprung up. While prices for key construction goods have come down, they still remain expensive for the majority of the population in Gaza, where the unemployment rate is over 30 percent and 80 percent of the people rely on U.N. handouts.

"The blockade in terms of housing impacts us primarily — the U.N. —and the people who are most vulnerable who don’t have access to jobs or economic opportunity," said Scott Anderson, deputy director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. "People who have money, it is easily available."

In the short term, there is no relief in sight. During the recent offensive, Israel heavily targeted the tunnels, which are also used to bring weapons into Gaza. Residents along the border say that smugglers and tunnel owners are still inspecting the damage but that many of the tunnels still operate, though at reduced capacity.

An Egyptian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, estimated that half the tunnels are not functioning.

With a sullied face and wearing only his undergarments, Azzam gave up his search for valuables in the rubble of his destroyed home on a recent day. He sat down to take a break and do some math.

His mother’s house was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2009. Since then, he has barely managed to rebuild one of its two floors. A $25,000 grant he received from an Arab fund did not cover the costs, and materials for the project have been hard to come by.

The Hamas government has given him $1,000 to find a place to live for now, and each member of the extended family received a similar amount. With housing in tight supply and rents skyrocketing, Azzam said the money will not last long.

"As we look there are no places to begin with," he said. "If we find a place, rent will be around $300 or $400. Before it was $200."

Yasser al-Shanti, deputy of the ministry of public works and housing in the Hamas government, said construction materials will start flowing into Gaza again once the tunnels are up and running again.

But Hamas’ real hope is that Israel and Egypt will lift border restrictions to allow large quantities of goods into the territory through proper border crossings. Hamas has high hopes for Egypt’s new Islamist government, which is far more sympathetic to the Islamic group than the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.

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