IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

As cease-fire holds, Gazans take stock of losses

Gaza's only cement packing factory is now a giant scrap heap, its towering silo tilting precariously.  Across Gaza City, power cables dangle from poles and and cars kick up swirls of dust.
This building in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, was among those destroyed in an Israeli strike before a cease-fire took effect. Jerry Lampen / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gaza's only cement packing factory is now a giant scrap heap, its towering silo tilting precariously. The owner's villa, pounded by Israeli tank shells, looks like Swiss cheese. Across Gaza City, power cables dangle from poles and and cars passing rubble kick up swirls of dust.

With a cease-fire taking hold Monday and streets safe from air strikes, Gazans took a first close look at the large-scale destruction across their crowded territory.

First estimates by independent surveyors said Gaza lost nearly $2 billion in assets during Israel's three-week war on Hamas, including 4,100 homes, about 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques, 31 security compounds and 10 water or sewage lines.

Many Gazans seemed overwhelmed, saying they didn't even know where to start with the cleanup.

Moussa Saber, a 64-year-old economics professor, inspected his damaged Gaza City apartment for the first time Monday, glass shards crunching under his feet. He turned on the tap of the bathtub, and to his relief water came out. Yet his home is uninhabitable, with doors and windows blown out by back-to-back bombings of Hamas' main government complex across the street.

Massive help promised
Saudi Arabia on Monday pledged $1 billion for Gaza's reconstruction and the international community has promised massive help. However, many here are skeptical money will actually arrive, fearing the rebuilding of Gaza — and eventual control of huge sums to be disbursed — will get held up by the bitter rivalry between Hamas and its moderate West Bank rivals, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is also expected to keep tight control over the money flow, to make sure aid money does not boost Hamas.

Even those who have money to rebuild on their own can't get the basic materials, whether cement, wood for doors or glass for windows. Shortages were widespread in Gaza even before the war, due to the blockade on the territory imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas' violent takeover in June 2007.

And aid groups are having trouble getting in. Mercy Corps reported that "most of the international aid community is still being denied access to Gaza."

On Monday, the first full day of a mutual cease-fire, Gaza City almost appeared back to its chaotic normalcy, with cars backed up behind slow-moving donkey carts and Hamas police in black uniforms and orange vests whistling and gesturing to keep traffic flowing across major intersections.

Tow trucks deploy
Many were busy cleaning up and collecting the basics.

The muezzin of the Abbas Mosque in Gaza City's middle-class Rimal neighborhood, in plastic flip-flops and with his pants rolled up, shoveled debris away from the sidewalk. Tow trucks moved flattened cars.

Homeowners digging through rubble carried off vases, refrigerators, dishes and baby beds, some loading their goods into cars and trucks. Children carried scrap metal stuffed into plastic bags, to be sold or recycled.

In Zeitoun, one of the hardest-hit areas of Gaza City, an electricity repair crew rose up in a hydraulic lift to hook up a new cable.

The electricity, water and sewage systems had been badly disrupted even before the war, largely due to Israel's tightened border closure since November — an attempt to squeeze Hamas to halt rocket fire on southern Israel. With little fuel coming in, water and sewage pumps broke down, and Gaza's main power station operated only intermittently, leading to widespread blackouts and shortages of running water.

During the war, six water wells were damaged or destroyed, disrupting the flow of water to an additional 200,000 of Gaza's 1.4 million people, said Monther Shobak, a top official in Gaza's water authority. In the northern town of Beit Hanoun, close to the Israeli border, sewage seeped into the damaged water line.

The battered electricity network also took a further blow. A senior technician, Mofid Awad, said 80 percent of the electricity grid in Gaza City was damaged, including power lines.

Spare parts a problem
Both Shobak and Awad said they could restore water and electricity networks in a matter of weeks, provided Israel allows entry of spare parts.

However, that's a big if. Even during the shaky six-month cease-fire that preceded the war, Israel only eased the restrictions slightly, reluctant to strengthen Hamas rule with a free flow of goods.

Peter Lerner, an official in the Israeli military, said Israel would continue to keep tight control over what's coming into Gaza. Israel will wait for damage assessments by international aid groups, and then facilitate what they request, he said.

"We are not looking to give Hamas a prize," he said. "There are limits and the priority is food supplies, and that's what's going in at the moment."

Even so, Hamas is hoping that a more permanent cease-fire deal currently under discussion will result in the opening of Gaza's crossing into Egypt.

3-5 years to rebuild?
Overall, the physical damage so far amounts to about $1.9 billion, according to separate surveys conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and by a Palestinian economic development council that serves as a liaison between the Abbas government and donor countries. Both are based in the West Bank.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, head of the development council, said damage to infrastructure alone amounted to about $200 million. He said that even under ideal conditions, with Israel and Egypt lifting the blockade and Hamas and Abbas settling their difference, it could take three to five years to rebuild.

Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, on Monday urged Hamas to quickly form a joint government that would oversee the rebuilding. He argued that working together on reconstruction could pave the way for a broader power-sharing deal.

However, Hamas appeared cool to the proposal, which would require it to relinquish substantial control over Gaza to its bitter rivals. Instead, Hamas civil servants have started making the rounds, taking down names of Gazans who suffered losses — though the inspectors did not hold out a promise of financial aid.

"Despite the size of the destruction and despite the war, we are still functioning," said Ehab Ghussein, spokesman of Hamas' Interior Ministry

Arab pledges of support
In Kuwait, Arab countries held an economic summit and discussed aid to Gaza. The Saudi king said his country's $1 billion donation would go to a proposed fund Arabs are setting up to rebuild the seaside territory.

Kuwait's emir also announced that the oil-rich U.S. ally was making a donation of $34 million to the United Nation's agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees.

However, Arab pledges of financial support to the Palestinians have not always materialized.

For the Abu Jiba family, which lost its cement packaging factory and adjacent three-story village during the final days of Israel's ground offensive, the political wrangling does not bode well. The family is out $10 million, the approximate value of the factory and the home, said Atta Abu Jiba, 24, a son of the owner.

"We don't know yet if they (government officials) will rebuild, or if it's just talk in the media," he said. "We have a government here and a government in Ramallah (in the West Bank) and we don't know whom to ask."