Gaza coming to grips with mass devastation that could affect Palestinians for several years

Scale of destruction exceeds 2 previous Hamas-Israel fights

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RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Ev­ery­where you look there is de­struc­tion: mosques, fac­to­ries, schools, hos­pi­tals, uni­ver­sities and thou­sands of houses shat­tered into piles of bricks, glass and metal. Roads man­gled by mil­i­tary tanks and bull­doz­ers. Ci­ties with­out elec­tric­ity, pitch black at night. The main sew­age plant dis­abled, pol­lut­ing the tur­quoise wa­ters of the Medi­ter­ra­nean.

And amid the ru­ins, more trag­edy looms. Caught be­tween Is­raeli air­strikes and Ha­mas mor­tars and rock­ets, en­tire fam­i­lies have been wiped out, and their so­cial safety nets de­stroyed. Nearly one-third of Gaza’s 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple have been forced to flee their houses, and many are now home­less. Tens of thou­sands of chil­dren are be­lieved to be suf­fer­ing from psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

As a tem­po­rary cease-fire held for a sec­ond day, Pal­es­tin­ians were com­ing to grips with a deep­en­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian and en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis that threat­ens to af­fect Gaza for years. The scale of de­struc­tion and loss over nearly a month of war, Gazans and in­ter­na­tional aid work­ers say, is far more dev­as­tat­ing than that left af­ter the two pre­vi­ous Is­rael-Ha­mas bat­tles, in 2009 and 2012.

“I am 70 years old, and I have not wit­nessed a war any­thing like this one,” Mu­hammed al-Astal said as he in­spected the re­mains of his cream-col­ored house, which had been dev­as­tated by Is­raeli shells. “This is not war. This is erad­i­ca­tion.”

As ne­go­ti­a­tions be­gan Wed­nes­day in Cairo to se­cure a broader truce be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas, the re­build­ing of Gaza emerged as a key el­e­ment of a solu­tion to the cur­rent con­flict. Under dis­cus­sion is an in­ter­na­tional do­nor con­fer­ence to raise funds and a re­con­struc­tion di­rected by the Western-backed Pal­es­tin­ian gov­ern­ment of Mahmoud Ab­bas, which lost con­trol of the coastal en­clave when Ha­mas seized power in 2007.

Bil­lions were also spent on re­con­struct­ing Gaza af­ter Is­rael’s 2008-2009 Oper­a­tion Cast Lead of­fen­sive against Ha­mas. Back then also, schools, fac­to­ries, bridges, mosques and more than 6,000 homes were badly dam­aged or de­stroyed, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. But five years later, many of those struc­tures ha­ven’t been fully re­built. Now, the cur­rent con­flict has brought even more wreck­age.

Speak­ing Wed­nes­day in front of the U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly, Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon said, “The mas­sive deaths and de­struc­tion in Gaza have shocked and shamed the world. We will build again, but this must be the last time to re­build,” the U.N. chief said."This must stop now. We must go back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.”

Pal­es­tin­ian of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that air­strikes and shell­ing have wrecked 10,000 houses and se­ri­ously dam­aged 30,000 more. As many as 80 mosques have been dam­aged or de­stroyed. Many farm­ing ar­eas and in­dus­trial zones, filled with the small man­u­fac­tur­ing plants and fac­to­ries that an­chored Gaza’s econ­omy, are now waste­lands.

“Most of the life has been de­stroyed,” said Mo­feed Al-Hasayneh, the Pal­es­tin­ian gov­ern­ment’s Gaza-based min­is­ter of pub­lic works and hous­ing, add­ing that it could take “seven to eight years” to re­build the houses and other struc­tures with­out as­sis­tance from the world.

Even in­ter­na­tional re­lief or­ga­ni­za­tions, ac­cus­tomed to work­ing in hard-hit war zones, have ex­pressed shock at the scale of the dam­age. “I’ve never seen such mas­sive de­struc­tion ever be­fore,” Peter Mau­rer, pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, said in a tweet Tues­day af­ter vis­it­ing Gaza.

With the lull in the con­flict, aid agen­cies are scram­bling to as­sess the dam­age and de­ter­mine how best they can help, if the cease-fire holds.

On Tues­day, aid worker Mathieu Eb­besen-Goudin ar­rived with his team in the east­ern Showka en­clave of Ra­fah, near the Is­raeli bor­der, where veg­e­ta­ble and fruit farms have been oblit­er­ated. Is­raeli tanks were vis­i­ble across the bor­der, throw­ing up dust. Is­raeli forces pum­meled the area last week when they searched for a sol­dier ap­par­ently ab­ducted by Ha­mas fight­ers, but who Is­rael later said had died in bat­tle.

“The har­vest for this year is lost. We have to re­ha­bil­i­tate all the lands,” said Eb­besen-Goudin, head of mis­sion of Pre­miere Ur­gence, a French re­lief agency. First, though, the farms needed to be cleared of un­ex­ploded ord­nance, he added, which could take months, even a year. The farms pro­duced po­ta­toes, to­ma­toes, zuc­chini, ol­ives and oranges, mostly for do­mes­tic con­sump­tion.

Even be­fore the war, Gazans lived pre­car­i­ously, par­tic­u­larly since Is­rael im­posed an eco­nomic block­ade of the strip af­ter Ha­mas took con­trol. Now, many fam­i­lies have fallen over the preci­pice, los­ing farms, live­stock and their homes.?

Moussa Abu al-Rous, 45, could al­ready see his fu­ture as he stood in the rub­ble of his flat­tened house near Ra­fah. His one-acre farm, where he had ol­ive and or­ange trees, is now a field of bull­dozed dirt. Mr. Rous, who has six chil­dren, said he doesn’t know how he will pay for his son’s col­lege ed­u­ca­tion or take care of his fam­ily. “How am I go­ing to feed them?” he said. “The win­ter is com­ing. Where are we to live?”

In Gaza City, Ali al-Hayek, head of the Pal­es­tin­ian Busi­ness­men As­so­ci­a­tion, went to in­spect doz­ens of fac­to­ries, par­tic­u­larly those in the bor­der ar­eas where most bom­bard­ments and clashes oc­curred. He said 100 to 120 fac­to­ries, in­clud­ing some that pro­duced med­i­cine, were de­stroyed. “Thou­sands of work­ers used to work in these fac­to­ries,” said Mr. Hayek, shak­ing his head.

Gazan chil­dren are also fac­ing a grim pre­dic­a­ment. The United Na­tions says 138 schools have been dam­aged by shell­ing. More than 250,000 Pal­es­tin­ian evac­u­ees are shel­ter­ing in U.N.-run schools, mak­ing it un­likely that classes will be able to start this fall. The U.N. Chil­dren’s Fund es­ti­mates that about 400,000 chil­dren are in need of psy­cho­log­i­cal ther­apy.

The knock-on ef­fects of the con­flict are vis­i­ble ev­ery­where. An Is­raeli strike on the en­clave’s pri­mary power plant caused elec­tri­cally driven wa­ter pumps to stop func­tion­ing, forc­ing peo­ple to wait in lines to get po­ta­ble wa­ter for do­mes­tic use. Fuel prices have shot up, driven by de­mand from Pal­es­tin­ians with gen­er­a­tors. And then there is the dam­age to Gaza’s main sew­age treat­ment plant.

On Tues­day, the stench was over­pow­er­ing. Flies were ev­ery­where. There were only two tech­ni­cians at the des­o­late plant, which needs elec­tric­ity to treat waste­wa­ter and pump it into the sea. In ad­di­tion, air­strikes also dam­aged a pipe­line, the tech­ni­cians said. Even if the elec­tric­ity re­turns, it is un­likely that the Ger­man-built plant will quickly re­sume op­er­a­tions: It is usu­ally main­tained by en­gi­neers who fly in from Ger­many. “Now, 55,000 cu­bic me­ters of sew­age is be­ing sent ev­ery day into the sea with­out treat­ment,” said Saeed al-Heeki, one of the tech­ni­cians.

Aid work­ers warn that even if the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity fun­nels in the bil­lions of dol­lars needed to re­build Gaza, the money will not make a long-term dif­fer­ence un­less there is a du­rable peace be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas. “If there’s not a po­lit­i­cal solu­tion, we will re­con­struct, and in two years you will have an­other war,” said Mr. Eb­besen-Goudin. “And Gaza will be de­stroyed again.”

united nations - israel - Middle East - Mahmoud Abbas - Palestinian territories - Ban Ki-Moon - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Hamas


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