Friday, May 1, 2009

Gaza: Not nearly back to normal

Apr 30th 2009 | GAZA CITY
From The Economist print edition
Three months after Israel’s war ended, life for Gazans is still dismal

MUHAMMAD KHADER places some rugs and blankets amid the ruins of his house. Sometimes he goes there to rest when the tent he shares with his wife and six of their daughters gets too crowded. They ran away from their home earlier this year when it was hit by a missile during Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip, and fled to their only married daughter’s house in Jabaliya, a Palestinian refugee camp originally built for villagers fleeing in 1948 from what is now Israel. The daughter did not have enough blankets or mattresses for everyone but the neighbours helped out.

As soon as the Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza in mid-to-late January the Khader family went home—to find a pile of rubble. Even their chicken pen had been bulldozed. It had been their sole source of income since Mr Khader, along with thousands of other Gazan men, lost his permit to work in Israel after the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) started in 2000. Now he sits amid the debris and gazes at the green tents with Rotary International logos which an Arab charity has pitched on a muddy, desolate field on Jabaliya’s eastern edge. Before the war, olive and citrus trees grew there. “We used to work in Israel,” he says, lighting another cigarette. “We worked for them, built their houses. And now look what they’ve done to us.”

Mr Khader is one of tens of thousands of Palestinians who became homeless in the recent Gaza war. UN agencies estimate that 4,100 houses were destroyed and 15,000-plus damaged; 50,000-odd people sought refuge in UN schools during the fighting. Most went home after the truce or found other places to live. But thousands are still huddling in tents in makeshift refugee camps.

A mining bulldozer noisily clears away the ruins on the fringe of Jabaliya but there is virtually no reconstruction anywhere in Gaza. At an international donors’ conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in March, $4.5 billion was pledged for reconstruction. But three months after the ceasefire, repair work has yet to begin.

Israel is still enforcing the sanctions it imposed on Gaza after the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas, took over the strip in June 2007, violently ousting its secular rival, Fatah. The Israelis still refuse to let in most imports except food and vital medicine. They still bar building material such as concrete, steel and pipes, as well as industrial equipment. They say they fear that Hamas and other militant groups would use them to build bunkers or weapons, such as the home-made rockets they still sometimes fire at nearby Israeli towns.

Supplies for repairing the water and sewage system and the electricity networks damaged during the war are also stuck at the border terminals. A good 90% of the people suffer from power cuts; the rest have no electricity at all. While 32,000 people in a population of 1.5m have no running water, 100,000 or so get water once in every two or three days. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which looks after Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, says that the rate of infectious diseases, including diarrhoea and viral hepatitis, which result from bad water and sanitation, has risen.

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