Cost to rebuild Gaza? $4 billion, political will

In some of the hardest-hit areas, the displaced have pitched tents next to the debris that once was their homes

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More than five weeks after the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged in the fighting still live in classrooms, storefronts and other crowded shelters.

In some of the hardest-hit areas, the displaced have pitched tents next to the debris that once was their homes.

Yet despite their pressing needs, reconstruction efforts appear stymied by a continued Israeli-Egyptian border blockade of Gaza and an unresolved power struggle between the Islamic militant group Hamas and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Those involved in rebuilding say the post-war paralysis finally will come to an end next week, with an international pledging conference in Cairo. There, Abbas is to ask for $4 billion for Gaza, including for the rebuilding or repair of more than 60,000 homes and 5,000 businesses.

Once the money is raised, a United Nations deal is to ensure that large amounts of building materials get into Gaza, despite the blockade. Under the arrangement, Israel would gradually ease restrictions, while Abbas - who lost Gaza to Hamas in 2007 - is to regain some control there and make sure cement and steel meant for reconstruction aren’t diverted.

But James Rawley, a senior U.N. official involved in the reconstruction, acknowledged the deal is fragile.

“We have a window of opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people of Gaza,” Rawley said. “But for that to happen, we need all parties to cooperate and work hard, including increasing the capacity of the (Israel-Gaza) crossings.”

Skepticism about rebuilding efforts is widespread in Gaza. The recent 50-day war was the third in the territory in just over five years. Many homes destroyed in previous fighting still haven’t been rebuilt.

During the most recent fighting, Israel launched thousands of airstrikes at what it called Hamas-linked targets and unleashed artillery barrages on border communities it said had been turned into militant outposts. Hamas fired thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel during the war. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, a majority civilians, according to the U.N. Israel lost 66 soldiers and six civilians.

In al-Khuzaa, a farming town on the border, local officials said more than a third of some 2,800 houses and apartments were destroyed or damaged. Last week, an international charity set up several dozen metal prefab homes in one neighborhood at a cost of $6,000 each, apparently the first such relief effort in Gaza.

Hamdan al-Najjar, 55, whose family of eight had slept for weeks in a shack of wooden boards and plastic sheets in the razed neighborhood, received one of the small trailers. But he hopes the temporary won’t become permanent.

“We don’t want to stay in the trailers for a long time and hope they will rebuild our houses,” al-Najjar said.

The prospects for homes actually being rebuilt appear mixed.

In a climate of distrust, the U.N.-brokered arrangement requires unprecedented cooperation, not just between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Abbas and Hamas. At the same time, though, the war has created a rare convergence of interests.

Israel wants long-term quiet on its border with Gaza, and its army chief recently said he believes allowing the import of building materials and restoring livelihoods wiped out by border closures will reduce the risk of another war.

Abbas also has a chance to end more than seven years of absolute Hamas rule in Gaza by overseeing reconstruction. Hamas militants actually may allow Abbas’ forces to be present on the ground, realizing that the international community, which shuns them as terrorists, otherwise will not assist.

Even before the war, Hamas increasingly had been unable to govern, crippled by a financial crisis caused by Egypt’s closure of smuggling tunnels into Gaza.

Despite this, Abbas told confidants as recently as last week that he doesn’t trust Hamas and is nervous about returning to Gaza without full control over the territory. Under a unity deal struck before the war, Hamas was to hand power to an Abbas-led temporary government of independent experts, but would not disband its security forces.

In a sign of Abbas’ hesitation, the unity government hasn’t set up shop in Gaza yet, prompting accusations by Hamas that the Palestinian president is stalling to extract more concessions.

“We feel that President Abbas is reluctant, but he shouldn’t be,” Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil said. “There is a partnership agreement and it should be implemented.”

Robert Turner, head of the main U.N. aid agency in Gaza, said delays come at the expense of Gaza’s population.

“What we need is the national consensus government physically present so that that mechanism (of rebuilding) can start, and it needs to start soon,” Turner said. “People are frustrated and angry, and they need to see progress.”

Shawki Issa, the agriculture minister in the new government, said he expects some movement at the latest after the Oct. 12 conference in Cairo.

The generosity of donors there likely will depend on Abbas taking charge in Gaza and on prospects of a sustainable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Donor countries face competing demands from other parts of the conflict-ravaged Mideast and are increasingly dismayed by the seeming futility of investing in Gaza without a political solution.

The international community already has pledged millions of dollars for Gaza relief, but Abbas is seeking much larger sums - $4 billion for reconstruction and $4.5 billion in budget support for his government through 2017.

Perhaps even more daunting than raising the funds is getting the building materials into Gaza.

Under Israeli rules before the war, trucks delivered consumer goods to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing, but only international agencies could bring in construction materials involving a cumbersome bureaucratic process.

Israel imposed the restrictions to prevent Hamas from grabbing steel and cement for military purposes, such as bunkers and tunnels. Israel’s suspicions were confirmed during the war when troops destroyed more than 30 attack tunnels under the Israel-Gaza border.

Under the new arrangement, Israel is to speed up procedures and allow the private sector to import construction materials, but has linked such steps to strict monitoring by the U.N. and pro-Abbas forces. This would include spot checks on some construction sites, with contractors losing lucrative contracts if they can’t account for their material.

Issa, the Cabinet minister, said Hamas also agreed to remove its checkpoint near Kerem Shalom.

But after more than seven years of border closures imposed in the wake of the Hamas takeover, such a new era of good will is hard to imagine for many in Gaza. The blockade has crippled Gaza’s economy and even before the war, a majority of the territory’s 1.8 million residents depended on aid and almost half the work force was unemployed.

Rawda al-Ajla, whose home in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood was destroyed in an airstrike and who now lives with her husband and 10 children in a grocery converted into a one-room apartment, is among those battered and wary.

“I’m very far from hopeful,” al-Ajla said. “How will they rebuild our homes?”

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