As Missiles Halt, Thousands Of Palestinians Find Themselves Homeless

CREDIT: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

A Palestinian woman looks out from the rubble of her home that was damaged by Israeli strikes

The short-term danger is over, for now. A new ceasefire between Israel and Hamas covering another 72 hours came into effect as of midnight on Monday. But as the air clears over the Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians are now finding themselves homeless and unsure of what comes next for them and their families.

Since the fighting between the two sides escalated more than a month ago, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has issued a daily report of the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. The numbers — while grim from the beginning — have only gotten worse as the conflict has continued. “It is estimated that 16,735 families (consisting of approximately 100,410 individuals) whose homes were totally destroyed or heavily damaged” are in need of emergency assistance, according to UNOCHA’s latest report.

As of the latest report, issued on Monday, the United Nations’ preliminary numbers indicate that there has been 1,960 Palestinians killed — “including at least 1,395 civilians, of whom 458 are children and 237 are women” — and 67 Israelis, including three civilians. The Palestinian dead are survived by the estimated 386,000 who have fled their homes in favor shelter from the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), in government shelters, and with host families. Adding to the grief of lost loved ones, once this particular Israeli campaign against Hamas concludes there won’t be much waiting for many of them on their return. “According to the latest estimates, 8,800 housing units have been totally destroyed, requiring reconstruction, and 7,900 were severely damaged and are uninhabitable until major repairs can take place.,” the U.N. said in the report.

And repairing the damage done won’t come cheap: the U.N. judges that it would cost around $534 million for reconstruction and repair of the properties. That figure doesn’t include fixing some of the infrastructure that has been damaged during the month-long conflict, including the territory’s sole power plant. One Palestinian official recently estimated that the complete cost of rebuilding Gaza will run nearly $6 billion.

The damage done to houses is more than 160 percent higher than the equivalent count taken during Israel’s “Operation: Cast Lead” in late 2008 and early 2009, UNOCHA said. And as before-and-after comparisons of the strip show, the destruction includes whole neighborhoods that have simply vanished. “Do we have to continue like this: build, destroy, and build, and destroy? We will build again — but this must be the last time to rebuild. This must stop now,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asked during a General Assembly debate on Gaza last week.

Even if the funds come through — which is still a question mark given the international community’s penchant for pledging funds for rebuilding but not following through — one factor will make rebuilding in Gaza all the more complicated: the blockade. Since Hamas, which the United States and other countries regard as a terrorist group, came to power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has maintained an embargo on most all construction materials flowing into Gaza. The theory behind this was to prevent the construction of more tunnels, such as the ones Israel is seeking to destroy. However, the blockade also cut off almost all other supplies to the small, densely-packed territory.

Under international pressure, Israel lifted some of the restrictions, allowing a small amount of concrete and cement to enter through Israel. But the tunnels extending into Egypt provided more than 3,000 tons of cement alone daily in 2011. Those tunnels’ output dropped significantly, however, after Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi was deposed last year, as the military-backed government that took his place is far less inclined to support Hamas. In contrast, the Israeli Defense Force said that “181,000 tons of gravel, iron, cement, wood, and other supplies” legally passed into the Gaza Strip so far this year.

Even before the latest crisis, Gazans were struggling to find housing as a result of the lack of construction opportunities. Sari Bashi, the co-founder of the Gisha–Legal Center for Freedom of Movement in Israel, told Businessweek that there was a shortfall of 75,000 houses in the Gaza Strip, a situation that the latest devastation will surely exacerbate. ““It’s impossible not to allow construction materials into Gaza,” Bashi said. “You cannot leave 1.7 million people without homes, schools, clinics, a working sewage system, and the 70,000 jobs that rely on the construction industry.”